Oklahoma inmate’s life spared hours before execution

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Richard Eugene Glossip has been granted at least another two weeks of life by an appeals court. His near execution highlights questions about the criminal justice system and the death penalty in the United States.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin was convinced that Richard Glossip was a murderer. She rejected a stay of execution, dismissing the pleas of Glossip’s lawyers as political, “part of a larger publicity campaign opposing the death penalty.”

“After carefully reviewing the facts of this case multiple times, I see no reason to cast doubt on the guilty verdict reached by the jury or to delay Glossip’s sentence of death,” Fallin said. “For that reason I am rejecting his request for a stay of execution.”

An Oklahoma appeals court saw the circumstances of the case differently. Hours before Glossip’s scheduled execution on Wednesday, the court granted his lawyers two weeks to review new evidence that could prove the 52-year-old’s innocence.

“Oklahoma has a long history of seeking death first and asking questions later,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told DW.

Faulty evidence

In 1997, Glossip allegedly told his co-worker, Justin Sneed, to murder the owner of the motel where they worked in Oklahoma City. Sneed beat Barry van Treese to death with a baseball bat.

 

This version of the story is based solely on Sneed’s statements to interrogators. In return for identifying Glossip as the mastermind, Sneed received a reduced sentence of life imprisonment. Under Oklahoma law, such testimony on its own should not be enough to convict a person, according to some observers.

“There’s a requirement that if there’s testimony by a person in Sneed’s position, who’s attempting to blame the crime on somebody else, for that evidence to be considered, there has to be independent evidence that the defendant was involved in the crime,” Dunham told DW.

Coerced testimony

Based on this requirement, Glossip’s defense lawyers argue that the evidence against their client is insufficient. They have also claimed there’s new evidence to prove Glossip’s innocence.

Michael Scott, an inmate whose cell was across from Sneed’s, claims, according to Glossip’s lawyers, to have overheard Sneed say “he set Richard Glossip up, and that Richard Glossip didn’t do anything.”

According to Dunham, law enforcement and authorities often use coercive interrogation techniques that produce false statements and ultimately lead to false death penalty convictions. Juries often aren’t provided access to the taped interrogations.

“Sneed faced the death penalty,” Dunham said. “The presence of the death penalty is a coercive force in itself. One person who is facing the death penalty himself manufacturers a statement against others in order to avoid capital prosecution.”

‘Torturous means’

Glossip and two other death row inmates had previously petitioned the Supreme Court to deliberate on whether Oklahoma’s lethal injection cocktail violated the Constitution. In June, a divided court ruled 5-4 that the three-drug cocktail did not violate the US Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court case stemmed from Oklahoma’s botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Lockett was injected with the untested cocktail that included the sedative midazolam. Execution by lethal injection is supposed to take about 10 minutes. In Lockett’s case, it took 43 minutes.

Glossip’s lawyers and others blamed midazolam for the lengthy execution. Oklahoma and other states have turned to the sedative – which is used in some surgeries and for other medical purposes – after American and European pharmaceutical companies refused to sell them sodium thiopental, the drug traditionally used for executions.

According to Dunham, Glossip’s case could have a broader impact on the divisive debate in the US about the death penalty. Had Glossip not received a stay from the Oklahoma appeals court, he would have been executed with the same drug cocktail used on Lockett. The execution would have occurred with the blessing of the governor and the US Supreme Court, which upheld the state’s three-drug execution cocktail.

“[The appeals court] underscored the unreliability of capital proceedings, the very real prospect that an innocent person could be executed by tortuous means, and it seemed to highlight that despite these grave concerns, the key actors in the state didn’t seem to care very much,” Dunham said.

Since 1973, more than 150 people have been exonerated from death row. Thirty-one states still have the death penalty. In May, Nebraska became the 19th US state to have abolished the death penalty.

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