As soon as Mark Wilson settled, shackled, into his seat, Michael Wu reminded the inmate why he had been summoned Tuesday to the visitors' center at the Oregon State Correctional Institution.
This is not a parole hearing, the head of the Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision said. The board is seeking testimony only on whether Wilson, convicted of aggravated and felony murder in 1988, is yet "capable of rehabilitation."
The board typically spends 30 days on those deliberations, Wu added:
"It might take a little bit more time in your case."
Wilson was 18 on the summer night in 1987 when he arrived, armed with a .22 Ruger, at the Terrebonne home of Rod and Lois Houser.
He was keeping bad company: Randy Guzek and Donald Ross Cathey. Guzek was the sadistic ringleader of that crew, but Wilson emptied the 22-bullet banana clip into Rod Houser at Guzek's command.
His testimony helped secure the death penalty for Guzek, who executed Lois at the door of an upstairs closet. Wilson - who felt so appreciated by prosecutor Ron Brown that he sent him a Christmas card in 1988 - settled for a plea bargain: consecutive life sentences. Forty years before a whiff of parole.
By all accounts, Wilson has done exceptional things with the rest of his life. He nursed 23 terminally ill inmates through hospice. Raised money for The Dougy Center and crime victims. Stayed clear of drugs. Joined Craig Plunkett in teaching a prison class, "Empathy, Forgiveness and Reconciliation."
"Anyone who has any interaction with him has figured out that he gets it," says Plunkett, who was inspired to start the prison project after his son, Eric, was murdered at Gallaudet University:
"He's rehabilitated. The victims don't want to admit he's rehabilitated. They're still hurting. And I'd be doing the exact same thing if I hadn't forgiven."
Since I first spoke to Wilson at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in 2005, he has been consistent: honest, chastened, reflective, and determined to somehow make amends for the havoc he unleashed.
Yet there's so much to forgive.
"The damage you've done to my family is irreparable," Susan Shirley, the Housers' daughter, told him. "If this crime does not deserve a life sentence, what crime does?"
As the Oregon Supreme Court has made clear, the parole board is required to focus on "the personal characteristics of the prisoner," not his crime, as it ponders rehabilitation. The court has also reduced the minimum time murderers must serve before they are eligible for parole
On Tuesday, Jason Thompson, Wilson's attorney, offered eight witnesses, other than family members, who lauded his transformation in prison. "He is not who he was," says Judith Steele, a former prison chaplain. "None of us are."
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis and those opposing early release for Wilson countered with his contentious 2010 testimony at Guzek IV.
Wilson did not testify in Guzek's 1991 and 1997 retrials, but he commandeered the stand in Bend at the killer's fourth death-penalty trial.
In a two-hour showdown with Marquis, the lead prosecutor, Wilson insisted he and Guzek were equally guilty.
"You all have tried to characterize him as ring-leader and shot-caller," Wilson said. "In 1988, that worked for me. Because I'm a follower, going along for the ride, I'm not as guilty or responsible for those acts as I really was. But I'm not going to let you do that (now). He's no more guilty than I am."
Says Marquis, "He was so angry that he planned to ruin the case against the guy who led him to perdition."
But Wilson's conduct is best understood in the context of a 2009 murder-review hearing.
Wilson was fiercely disappointed when that board ruled him incapable of rehabilitation. He filed bar complaints against Marquis and Brown for pushing the board toward that conclusion, then lashed out at Guzek IV.
Rather than be faulted for taking too little responsibility, Wilson decided, he'd take too much.
Asked again to describe the murders seven years later, Wilson spoke in whispers. He doesn't want to circle back to the dark house in Terrebonne. He doesn't want to be forever shackled to what he remembers about that night, what he felt, whether Guzek had to step aside before Wilson first pulled the trigger.
That doesn't pass muster with Doug Houser, Rod's younger brother. "Mark Wilson should man up and serve his time," Houser said. "A minimum sentence means exactly what it says, 40 years not 29."
Nor did it seem to impress Wu and the board, which was far more focused on Wilson's crime than the 29 years he has spent making amends.
"You're defined by the one instance you did something wrong," Plunkett says. "But we change. We have to change. If Mark is denied, he's still doing to do positive things. If he's paroled, he'll do positive things on the outside."
And, no, Mark Wilson doesn't pretend that will ever be enough.
-- Steve Duin
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