Interview with a death row inmate

“I’m not going to beg them to spare my life. I’ll try to keep my head up with a little bit of dignity.”

Watch Fault Lines: The politics of death row

In 2010, while making an episode of Fault Lines on the death penalty in the US, Josh Rushing interviewed death row inmate Michael Selsor. It was the only interview Selsor ever granted.

Two years later, Rushing witnessed his execution.

Below is the full transcript of their conversation.

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.

Last meal?

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.