Oklahoma carries out more executions per capita than any other state in the USA (though things might slow down as the state is currently down to its last dose of pentobarbital, the anesthetic in its lethal injection cocktail).
In September 2010, Al Jazeera reporter Josh Rushing put together a video piece on the Oklahoma and U.S. death penalties. Now, he has supplemented that with his interview of Michael Selsor, who was first sent to Oklahoma’s death row in 1976, and a blow-by-blow description of Selsor’s execution on May 1, 2012 for the 1975 killing of convenience store clerk Clayton Chandler in Tulsa.
The interview with Selsor (which took place back in 2010 and was the only one he ever gave) is particularly interesting and reveals a man who was remorseful, reflective, somewhat resigned but also prideful. He was sorry for his crime, but never reached out to the victim’s daughter:
“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?”
Ronald Smith, a Canadian national, is facing a clemency hearing on May 2 in Montana. He was sentenced to die for a crime committed almost 30 years ago, a crime for which he has consistently expressed remorse. He has since rebuilt his life from inside the prison walls. Putting him to death now would serve no purpose, and Montana should not do it.
One of the problems with the death penalty is that it denies the possibility that people can reform.
At the time of his arrest for his part in the August 1982 killing of two Native Americans, Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit Jr., Smith wanted to take full responsibility for the crime and in fact asked for the death penalty. He got it.
His lawyer, who had never tried a death penalty case before, was no help. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that this lawyer “failed to investigate the facts of the crime, failed to investigate Smith’s mental state at the time of the crime, and failed to discuss possible defenses before Smith pled guilty.” (Bizarrely, and typically, this Court nonetheless ruled that the lawyer had not harmed his client enough to warrant any relief.)
That’s the title of Amnesty International’s short report on David Lee Powell, a man who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on June 15 despite demonstrating great remorse and having been a model inmate for the 32 years he has been in prison. David Powell was sent to Texas death row for killing Austin police office Ralph Ablanedo in May 1978. In the midst of a methamphetamine addiction when the crime occurred, Powell cleaned up in prison. Included in Powell’s clemency petition is a statement from an Austin police officer who states: “… the man who will be put to death for the killing of Ralph Ablanedo is not the man who committed the crime.”
In Texas, death sentences hinge on a concept called “future dangerousness”; that is, the jury has to determine whether or not the defendant will commit violent crimes in the future. If they decide he will, then, and only then, can they sentence him to death. Clearly, once off drugs, David Lee Powell has not been a danger to anyone and no longer qualifies for execution.
The problem with the death penalty (well, one of the problems) is that it doesn’t allow for the fact that people can change and improve. In fact, it cancels out the very possibility of human redemption. Capital punishment is based on a depressing philosophy that bad people (or people who do bad things) will always be bad. Certainly, human beings are capable of doing terrible things, but they are also capable of doing remarkable good, or at least doing better, if we don’t execute them first.
One of the purposes of executive clemency is to consider factors like this (remorse, redemption) that are out of the purview of the courts. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has a chance to recommend clemency in David Powell’s case, and assert on behalf of the people of Texas that, yes, sometimes people can change.
Action for Human Rights. Hope for Humanity.