Texas is set to execute Marvin Wilson tonight. Wilson was convicted nearly twenty years ago of killing a police informant. The case has raised questions because even though Wilson has an IQ that reportedly places him in the bottom percentile of the nation, Texas has declared him mentally competent enough to kill him.
Wilson will die by lethal injection. I witnessed an similar execution in Oklahoma earlier this year. Above is the news piece I filed about the execution. I wasn’t allowed to take a camera into the death chamber, so here’s what I witnessed:
Michael Selsor executed May 1, 2012, in Oklahoma.
May 1, 2012 — I came to Oklahoma to witness a killing, a homicide in fact.
At a microphone Debbie Huggins fights tears and with a strong southern drawl says slowly, emphatically: “What we did to him today was much kinder than what he did to my dad.”
"Him" refers to Michael Selsor and "what" to the murder of Clayton Chandler, a clerk shot six times during a gas station robbery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Selsor pulled the trigger even after Chandler had complied and volunteered the loot.
"In 1975 I never would have thought that it would take 37 years for justice," Huggins says.
Today’s justice was delivered about half an hour before Huggins approached the microphone; it is why I am here.
Michael Selsor walking. [Josh Rushing]
There are few acts graver than when a government takes the life of one of its own citizens. Executions often get a lot of coverage in the US, when there is something controversial about the case or enough people believe the condemned might be innocent. These scenarios attract media attention and fuel vigils. This was not the case with Michael Selsor. Everyone agreed that he did it, including him. The reporters who cover Selsor’s execution will focus on Huggins and her family. Perhaps you cannot blame them. The only interview Selsor ever granted was to me.
Even though executions are conducted on behalf of the citizens of the state, very few are allowed to witness it: families of the condemned and their victims, lawyers, law enforcement, and journalists. This is why I felt a responsibility to witness Selsor’s end and then to report it as dispassionately and honestly as I could. The following attempts such an account.
About an hour before Huggins gives her statement, I am led from a makeshift media center to the notorious H Unit, home of Oklahoma’s death row. A pat down ensures our escorts that I carry no possessions other than the clothes on my back. They give me paper and a pen so I can take notes. I am joined by five other reporters. We maneuver through a set of gates that open to a large passageway. The walls and floor are made of smooth concrete. The passage feels stark, modern, like a secret missile silo - and incongruous with this century-old prison famous for inmate rodeos and executions.
Eventually we turn through a large yellow door into the death chamber’s viewing room. I have been here before, but then the space was empty and part of the tour - now it is ready for business.
A handful of prison officials and guards are waiting for us in the viewing room, a narrow rectangle about four times as long as it is wide. A long series of windows to my right are covered by drawn blinds. Two rows of 12 brown metal folding chairs - the kind dragged out of a storage closet at a school picnic - are lined up. I am the first reporter in the room and told to go to the end of the second row and take a seat.
As I sidestep down the row I notice for the first time another set of windows on the left side of the room. The tinted panes conceal the identity of those on the other side. I suppose the setup is not unlike a wedding with two families to attend to and keep separated. The original victim, Clayton Chandler, is represented by an unknown number of family members behind the dark glass. It is hot in this room - at least 90 degrees and rising as people file in. Movement behind the opaque windows catches the light and my eye; at least two people are fanning themselves with white paper. Chandler’s family members must already be in place, watching us nervously find our seats.
Three lawyers in dark suits representing Selsor enter next and sit directly in front of me. Selsor’s family follows. His son wears a grey t-shirt, shorts and a military-short haircut. Tattoos cover his neck and arms. Selsor’s sister, with a shock of blonde hair, looks tired. Her bright blue, short-sleeved shirt contrasts a suntanned face, wizened beyond her years. A box of cheap tissues rests in the son’s chair, courtesy of the state. Once Selsor’s family is settled, a small contingent of law enforcement file in, including Jeff Jordan, who investigated Chandler’s murder as a rookie homicide detective. He is now Tulsa’s police chief.
A cacophony of banging echoes throughout the prison. We have been warned not to be alarmed by the noise - it is how inmates say their goodbyes.
Selsor is respected on death row. He is seemingly regarded as a serious and contemplative individual who became an asset of sorts to prison inmates and staff alike - though officials always caveat the sentiment with a reminder that his crime was inexcusably wrong and such actions must bear consequences. As the run guy, a job given to the toughest of the condemned, Selsor made deliveries to other cells and kept fellow inmates in line. When school children visited the prison, Selsor played a regular part in the tour. From behind bars he shared with the children his life lesson about the consequences of one’s actions.
The appointed time nears and the banging becomes rhythmic - quick at first, but slowing now to a steady, dirge-like pace.
The director of Oklahoma prisons, Justin Jones, who has twice appeared on Fault Lines, enters. The yellow door shuts behind him. Rather than taking a chair, he is handed a phone, a hotline to the governor’s office. Though not far from me, I cannot hear what he is saying. Jones hangs the receiver up, picks up a different phone connected with the execution chamber and tells them to proceed.
It is exactly 6 pm local time. The curtain goes up as guards raise the mini-blinds inside the execution chamber. Selsor’s family in front of me gasps at the sight of him. He is strapped to the bed with his arms padlocked down and covered in a sheet up to his chest. Selsor’s pinched eyebrows convey a look between fear and guilt.
The son waves to his father for what turns out to be the last time and reaches for the tissues. The son and sister begin to cry. Selsor lifts his head as much as he can and turns toward his small audience: “My son, my sister, I love you ‘til I see you again next time. Be good. Eric, [Selsor’s lawyer] keep up the struggle.” His eyes scan the viewing room: “I’ll be waiting at the gates of heaven for you. I hope the rest of you make it there as well.”
There have been at least 1,121 executions by lethal injection in the US since 1979 [Josh Rushing]
He turns his head toward the prison official standing over him and says: “I’m ready.” Relaxing back to the bed, he turns his head to the side and focuses on his son.
Though we cannot see it, we all know what is happening now. Two intravenous lines run from Selsor’s arms to two holes in a wall about three feet behind his head. From a hidden room, three executioners each press a plunger sending lethal doses into his veins: one with pentobarbital, another with vecuronium bromide and a third with potassium chloride. The executioners are each paid $300 in cash, so no paper trail leads to their identity.
With a tilted head still looking at his son, Selsor’s gaze begins to fade, his eyelids half closing. A final breath exits his body with a visible puff from his lips. His body stills, eyes half open and locked on his son. It is roughly 6:03 pm.
The next three minutes pass painfully slowly. No one moves in the death chamber or viewing room. I hear barely perceptible sounds of crying from the row in front of me. A medical examiner in the chamber approaches the bed, checks for signs of life and pronounces Michael Selsor dead at 6:06 pm.
We solemnly return to the media center. Huggins holds a press conference and tells us that the execution did not bring closure or the kind of justice it seems she was seeking, but it is easy to see her relief from the death of Selsor. The ultimate boogeyman in her mind was finally gone.
In time a death certificate will be issued from the state of Oklahoma. For cause of death, it will say Selsor died from a homicide. Though it took nearly four decades to find its target, it is clear now that the trigger Selsor pulled that fateful day in 1975 ended not only Chandler’s life, but his own as well.
Oklahoma Death Chamber [Josh Rushing]
Michael Selsor’s only interview:
MIKE SELSOR, DEATH ROW INMATE May 7, 2010
My name is Mike Selsor, my number is 91854 and I’m serving a first degree murder sentence.
How long have you been on death row?
This time here since ‘98.
What do you mean this time?
This is my second time on death row. I first came in here in February 1976 and went to death row then. And back then the Supreme Court ruled Oklahoma’s death penalty unconstitutional and that’s how I got off of it. And through the years I’ve kinda kept up my appeals and eventually won a retrial. Went back for a retrial and got a good ol’ rural Oklahoma screwin’ from the courts, and I’m back on death row again.
For the same crime?
For the same crime.
What’d you do?
Murder. Person got killed and I’m to blame for it.
What are your thoughts on the death penalty?
I’m actually against it. I don’t think a government - whether it’s capitalist, socialist or communist - should have this kind of power over its subjects. This is making the government a demagogue or a God status, to have the power of life and death over an individual. Whereas I think a government’s function is to upraise mankind, not downtrodding, you know?
So would you philosophically agree with the government being able to sentence you to life without parole?
Me personally, no. The only difference between death and life without parole is one you kill me now, the other one you kill me later. There’s not even a shred of hope. There’s no need to even try to muster up a seed of hope because you’re just gonna die of old age in here.
Which would you rather have?
With the death penalty sentence I’m entitled to more appeals - the government’s gonna pay for it. I don’t have to do it myself if I don’t have the money for a lawyer which I don’t have. Instead I’m relying on public defenders to do my appeals.
Appeals and stuff aside, would you rather serve a death penalty sentence or a life without parole sentence?
I think I’d rather have the death sentence. And I say this because I’ve already did 35 years in here, and I can’t see doing another 35 and just die of old age. And the way the prison is, I’m kinda blessed and fortunate and lucky to have made it this far, but let’s face it, eventually, I’m gonna get older and weaker, and it’s gonna be hard to fight these battles - whether they be physical, mental, whichever.
What’s the hardest part about being in prison?
There ain’t nothin’ easy about it. Everything is kinda hard. You’re separated from society - which is what prison is for, you were took away from society for a crime, that’s a fact - but growin’ up in this prison I’ve been through two prison riots. Believe me, you don’t come out good on that.
Were you a dangerous guy before prison?
I wasn’t a real nice guy, I’ll say that. All through school I was not quite the bully in the sense that I tormented people but I fought all through school, I’ve gotten kicked out of school for fighting several times, numerous times actually. My dad taught me how to fight pretty good. He used to whoop my ass quite a bit. Ten years old we put boxing gloves on and every Friday night we got it on out in the front yard, and I took me an ass-whoopin ‘til I got big enough and strong enough to whoop his ass.
Do you think you’re a dangerous guy now?
I hope I’m not. I hope that I’ve evolved spiritually and mentally enough that I’m not, but let’s face it, I’m in a rat-hole prison in the worst conditions, and if somebody was to try to put some hands on me I’m gonna hurt em - pure plain and simple - and I’m gonna hurt em bad.
When are you scheduled for execution?
I don’t have a date yet, I still got a couple more appeals to go. But to look at realistically and truthfully, let’s say nothin’ happens on my appeals. I got a little bit of hope that it will. I’ve done used up all my state appeals, and so I got two more federal appeals, which means I’ll be here for this Christmas, but next Christmas might be kinda shaky.
One of the victims daughters went to the DA when they found out I was getting a retrial and brought a lawyer up here with em and protested and all this before I even got up there for a retrial. And that’s where they just steamed up and said aw hell, we’ll just give him the death penalty again.
Have you ever tried to reach out to the victim’s family?
No. Not like tryin’ to contact ‘em directly or indirectly, no. I figure there ain’t nothing I could say to ‘em that would apologise for what I’ve done.
Are you remorseful about it?
Shit, I’ve been remorseful for a long time, not just about that but about a lotta things. Plenty of time to contemplate and reflect on all the things you’ve done in your life, and every one of them deserves remorse. Eventually it’s gonna creep in, depression’s gonna creep in, all that’s gonna take effect.
And really if I could say look I’m sorry for what I’ve done, I’m sorry I killed your dad, what the hell would that mean to her? It’s not gonna make her feel any better, especially if she wants me dead.
Do you think your death might offer her some healing?
No. My death is not gonna change nothin’. Not just in her case but in every case. If you stop and think about it, the trauma that I put their family through, now they kill me, so now my family’s gonna go through the same trauma that they went through, so how does that equal out? In the long run I don’t think it’s going to.
What about a sense of justice - a life for a life?
It’d be like saying ‘a black eye for a black eye’ - everytime you do somethin’ wrong you oughta get a black eye. Hell the whole world would have black eyes.
What if the situation were reversed? Would you seek the death penalty against someone who killed your father or your son?
No. Don’t deprive me. I’d wanna kill ‘em myself. You kill my father, hell I’d wanna kill you myself, I wouldn’t want the state to do it. You go on death row, they got some people up here I see ‘em everyday, that I guarantee some of them crimes that they done if that had been my child, I’d wanna kill him before the police ever saw him. Don’t deprive me.
What do you think of the government?
At some point the government intrudes a little bit too much. The government is supposed to help bring society to a higher level, but at some point the government got so big that it’s took on a life of it’s own, and tryin’ to sustain its own self by whatever means.
Is the government serving society by keeping you away from society?
If I got right out here and somebody killed my child it wouldn’t be I guess, but eventually I’m gonna get so old and feeble that ain’t gonna be able to hurt a rag doll. So how’s that servin’ society?
What about the politicians? Tough on crime, etc?
They’re not accomplishing as much as they could be with the same amount of funds. Ninety per cent of the people in here, drugs or alcohol is behind it somehow. So what if you took somebody that’s come in with a drug deal instead of givin’ him a felony and lockin’ him up for 10 years, why don’t you take him to that Narcanon and get the guy some help instead of being a total burden on society?
If you oppose the death sentence and you oppose life without parole, what would be a just sentence for someone who commits murder?
You gotta do some time, let’s face it, you done a serious and the worst crime possible here, in anybody’s point of view. So you gotta pay. But somewhere along the road there should be some kinda redemption.
Either train the guy after he done so much time, teach him somethin’ where he can get out there and maybe start payin’ his taxes …. You’re not gonna get rich, you’re not gonna be totally poor, but at least you could function and pay back somehow.
I came in here 21 years old, and if I live to be another 30 years, look at all these years I been nothin’ but a total burden on society. No redemption in that.
There’s no sense of hope or growth or evolution is there?
You try to hope there is. You have to have a shred of a little bit of hope that someday you may get out, you know, a little light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it’s a candle 50 miles down the road lit up, you know? Even in my case where really there probably isn’t, I always keep a little shred of hope there sayin’ someday maybe I will get out - on the high side of social security maybe - but I could see the outside world again.
What do you imagine about the outside world? What do you miss?
It’s not in the city, I guarantee you that. I been crammed in here around these men for so long that I don’t want no part of this. I want a river out there within a quarter mile of my house - and I don’t want a big house, I just want a little old shack out there - and if there’s nobody livin’ within 25 miles of me that’d be just fine. I could spend my time fishin’ on that river, maybe trap a few squirrels and rabbits and deer during the winter time, and basically just want to get away from it, you know? I couldn’t imagine goin’ from here to some five-storey apartment building in the middle of the city and have to hear all that noise, that’s what I wanna get away from.
So it’s not the connection with humanity that you miss?
You’re well connected with humanity bein’ in here. You’re just not seein’ the best of it.
What do you think goes into the governor’s decision to grant clemency or not? What’s affecting his decision in your mind?
I really don’t know, I could only take a guess at what he’s thinkin’. I would say he’s analysin’ or calculatin’ it somehow. If I let this guy off, what kind of threat would he be down the line?
How much do you think the decision is politics and what people will think about him letting someone off?
Probably more than what they would admit to. If he’s runnin’ for re-election, I wouldn’t see him grantin’ no clemencies. You see all these politicians rattlin’ off right now - Arizona passed this real strict immigration bill, and now hell, we want one too - to show that we’re tough on crime. Like the politician runnin’ for re-election in Sand Springs up there, he’s wantin’ to make it capital punishment now for child molestin’, even though the Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional last year, he said that don’t matter, I’m doin’ it anyway, just to show that he’s tough on crime, knowin’ this law ain’t gonna go nowhere. And the people are dumb enough to believe it I guess.
What do you think about death? Do believe in an afterlife?
Well there’s got to be a heaven because I’m livin’ in hell right now.
You’re always reminded of death in here …. you’re constantly reminded just cause you’re on death row. You may think about it a little more often when there’s an execution coming up, so that brings it to the forefront of your mind a little more.
Have you thought about how you’ll handle yours?
Yes I have. For one, I wouldn’t even ask for clemency. I’ve pretty much decided I’m gonna skip that, I ain’t even gonna ask for it. I’m not gonna beg ‘em to spare my life. I’ll try to keep my head up with a little bit of dignity, and I’m gonna be buried out on Periwood Hill. Even if somebody wanted my body, I’d say hell no, I’ve been in this prison my whole life, and that’s where I’m gonna go.
A fried rabbit, that’s what I actually want.
Good luck with that.
I’m talkin’ about a wild one. you know, go out and shoot one, a cotton tail - fry it up with mash potatoes, gravy and corn on the cob.
If there’s a heaven do you think you’ll go there?
I hope I’ve passed the test.
As it says in Christianity - ask for forgiveness. I’ve done that. And I’ve had to do that in a sense from years ago when I realised that all this hate that I had in me from my childhood and on, that this is gonna kill me more than anything else. It’s what I do or what somebody else does, this is what’s gonna kill me. If I didn’t release it and learn how to release it than sure I was gonna go to hell.
Do you think that with different parents and different circumstances, you would’ve ended up in a different place?
No. It would have to be a different me. I don’t wanna blame my parents for my shortcomings. It would have to be a change in me. I would have to look at things different from the way I looked at ‘em.