Oklahoma man to be executed for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter (2024)

An Oklahoma man set to be executed by lethal injection on Thursday for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter maintains his innocence but has accepted his fate after running out of appeals, his attorney tells USA TODAY.

Richard Rojem Jr., 66, was found guilty of raping and stabbing Layla Cummings to death in July 1984. The little girl's brutalized body was left in a field.

If it proceeds, Rojem's execution will be the second in Oklahoma this year and the ninth in the U.S. It also comes just one day after the execution of a man in neighboring Texas.

"There's nothing else really we can do," Jack Fisher, Rojem's attorney, told USA TODAY, about his client's exhausted appeals. "He's ready to just go on."

Rojem, who has been on death row for four decades, previously had two successful appeals and even avoided execution after it had been set for Oct. 5, 2023.

As his execution approaches, USA TODAY is looking back at the crime, what led Rojem down a path that ended with Layla's murder and what the little girl's mother says now that the execution is moving forward.

Oklahoma man to be executed for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter (1)

What happened to Layla Cummings?

Layla was abducted from an apartment in Elk City, Oklahoma, where she lived with her mother and 9-year-old brother on July 6, 1984, Oklahoma state court documents say. The children's mother and Rojem's ex-wife, Mindy Cummings, had left them alone to work a late shift at a local fast-food restaurant.

The next morning a farmer found Layla's body in a field about 15 miles from her home in Burns Flat. She still had on her mother's nightgown.

A medical examiner testified at trial that Layla died from two large stab wounds in her neck area, was stabbed in her vagin*l region, and suffered other injuries that indicated rape, according to the appellate documents.

Before the murder, Rojem had been divorced from Layla's mother for two months, court records say. He met Mindy Cummings when he was imprisoned in Michigan for sex offenses; she was the sister of his cellmate, court documents say.

The then-26-year-old Rojem knew Cummings' work schedule and that the lock to her apartment door was broken, according to the court filings.

Oklahoma man to be executed for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter (2)

How did detectives place Richard Rojem at the scene of the Layla Cummings' murder?

Investigators placed Rojem at the scene by finding a beer cup with his fingerprint on it within 25 feet of the Cummings' apartment on the morning of July 7, the appeals documents say. Rojem had been at a local bar on the evening of July 6 and didn't leave the business until 11:50 p.m., according to the court records.

Rojem called his job around 1:14 a.m. and told the dispatcher to log the time of his call as 12:35 a.m., the court records show. Later Friday morning, Rojem "requested that the entry be changed to the correct time," the documents say.

Although the footprints in the soil around Layla's body were not distinguishable, police determined tire tracks in the plowed field were compatible with the tires on Rojem's vehicle, the appellate documents say.

When authorities searched Rojem's bedroom on July 7, they found a used condom in the trash, along with its wrappings, which matched the ones found on the ground near Layla's body, according to the appellate documents. The brand of condoms was sold from a dispenser in the men's restroom at the bar Rojem visited on the evening of July 6, the documents say.

During Rojem's interview with police about his whereabouts, he said he left the bar when it closed, slowly drove to a small supermarket about 25 miles away and arrived at 1:10 a.m. on July 7, the court filings say. He said he then went by his girlfriend's home in Dill City, Oklahoma, before he went back to his house, according to court documents.

'No one is going to want to turn him loose'

Jack Fisher told USA TODAY that his client's case was "really really difficult" to defend at trial, despite there being "indications that he was innocent."

"If they have any evidence to convict, the jury is going to convict," the attorney said. "No one is going to want to turn him loose."

Throughout the various appeals and parole hearings, including his most recent hearing on June 17, the court had the option of "just letting him stay in prison for the rest of his life," according to Fisher.

But "you can see the fire in the eyes of the parole board," Fisher said about Rojem's recent hearing.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board denied Rojem clemency on June 17. Rojem previously had luck with appeals, as his first and second death sentences were thrown out in 2001 and 2006 due to issues with the jury in both instances, state court records show.

After jurors agreed to the death penalty for a third time in 2007, Rojem continued to fight until he ran out of appeals in 2017.

Oklahoma man to be executed for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter (3)

How was Richard Rojem's upbringing?

Rojem comes from a family with "generational dysfunction," and whose parents and caretakers were alcoholics throughout his childhood, according to mitigating evidence filed in court records in an attempt to explain Rojem's history and spare him from the death penalty.

Because Rojem was born prematurely with an orthopedic deformity and disability, he had a "painfully dislocated hip," spending the first three years of life in a full body cast, court records say.

When Rojem was 3 years old, his biological father was killed in a bar fight, and he was raised by his 17-year-old mother in a "chaotic and overcrowded household," according to the filings. He lived with 13 people in a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom house.

Rojem witnessed domestic abuse between his mother and stepfather and was sexually abused by an older stepbrother, the documents say.

Rojem was genetically predisposed to developing psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other personality disorders, the court records show.

Oklahoma man to be executed for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter (4)

Who is Richard Rojem now?

After serving decades behind bars, Fisher's clemency brief says Rojem is a "Zen Buddhist and is highly respected by his Zen Buddhist friends."

"He should not be executed for this horrific crime he did not commit," the attorney wrote. "He will not be a threat to anyone."

Rojem continues to maintain his innocence, saying at the recent clemency hearing, "I did not murder Layla." He did acknowledge his past sexual assault conviction, which led to him serving four years in a Michigan prison for the rape of two teenage girls, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said in a June 10 news release.

“The family of Layla Cummings has waited 40 years for justice to be done," Drummond said. "Her killer is a real-life monster who deserves the same absence of mercy he showed to the child he savagely murdered."

Layla's mother and Rojem's ex-wife, Mindy Cummings, told the parole board that "40 years is a very long time to see the fulfillment of justice that his horrific crime deserves."

She continued: "It’s a long time to be concerned about our safety as long as this monster's alive ... Death row does not protect us from Rojem.”

A handcuffed Rojem said during the hearing: "I wasn’t a good human being for the first part of my life, and I don’t deny that ... But I went to prison. I learned my lesson and I left all that behind.”

Contributing: Amanda Lee Myers

Oklahoma man to be executed for the rape and murder of his 7-year-old former stepdaughter (2024)
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