For several minutes on Wednesday afternoon, the world slowed down for those of us who act as advocates of prisoners’ rights. As each second crawled by, we waited with bated breath to hear the news as to whether Richard Glossip, convicted of the killing of Barry Van Treese in 1997, would take his final breaths within the sterile walls of an Oklahoma prison.
Mercifully, relief arrived at the eleventh hour, when Governor Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution until November 6th. But while we have to be grateful for the order, one can’t help but be troubled by the reasons for its issuance. The 37-day stay was issued because the state needed time “to determine whether potassium acetate is compliant with the execution protocol and/or to obtain potassium chloride.” In lethal injection, the third drug to be administered is supposed to be the former. So execution protocols, rather than the existence of compelling evidence indicating Glossip’s innocence, forms the basis of this temporary reprieve.
For those unfamiliar with his case, Richard Glossip was convicted of orchestrating the murder of his boss, Barry Van Treese, solely on the basis of testimony provided by the killer himself, the then 19-year-old Justin Sneed. There is also an eerie similarity of circumstances with this week’s execution of Georgia woman Kelly Gissendaner. While she admitted her guilt, she too was sentenced to death for orchestrating the crime, while the individual responsible for the actual killing cut a deal to testify in exchange for avoiding the death penalty.
In Glossip’s case, other than Sneed’s testimony, there was no evidence presented that ever tied him to the crime, nor does there appear to have been any valid motive for his wanting Van Treese dead. There simply exists no corroborative or physical evidence whatsoever, and questions regarding evidence destruction and faulty medical testimony have also arisen. That the state is willing to kill a man on the basis that they deem him to be “unsavory” armed only with the testimony of an individual who himself has admittedly lied, cheated, stolen, and was feeding a serious drug habit at the time of the murder, shows us all how broken it is. Over the years, Sneed’s testimony has been revealed as inconsistent, unreliable, and in some cases, outright fabricated.
In two trials, Glossip received what could be called highly ineffective representation—both having neglected to present some of the most important evidence related to the case and failing to undertake the necessary investigations regarding Sneed’s own past. Justin Sneed’s own daughter has urged the state to reconsider the execution, believing her father has a guilty conscience.
On Monday the Oklahoma Court of Appeals denied 3-2 the Glossip’s legal team’s request for an emergency stay based on new evidence. Three affidavits were presented as new evidence in the case, the most significant of which was from an individual, Michael Scott, who claimed to have heard Sneed bragging about framing Glossip in order to avoid the death penalty for himself (and lest anyone is tempted to think that Scott was acting as a jailhouse snitch to cut himself a better deal, he had already been released when he notified the police). Yet inexplicably three judges felt this was simply an expansion of his initial defense, and as such didn’t meet the threshold for “new evidence.” The county’s District Attorney seems similarly unconcerned with a potential tragic miscarriage of justice, going so far as allegedly engaging in witness intimidation tactics designed discredit testimony.
When a court is so seriously divided on many of the legal matters at issue, it feels criminal to proceed with an execution. If we believe judges are to be the arbiters of justice, then should we not be seriously concerned that two of them believe his trial was so seriously flawed as to be resulting in the possible execution of an innocent man?
But at the end of the day, I am not here to retry Glossip’s case, or to imply either his guilt or innocence, though obviously the evidence is strongly indicating the latter. I am writing to shine the spotlight on a broken system. On a system predicated on a bloodlust that would risk the killing of an innocent individual simply to be sated in the name of justice. Because the fact remains that no matter the situation (even in situations where an individual confesses, there have been documented cases false confessions elicited for any number of reasons), as long as the death penalty exists we, as a society, run the risk of killing innocent people.
In a press release, the Governor stated that the most “sobering and important duty for the state is to carry out the punishment of death.” What does it say about the system society when the state’s most important duty is not to ensure the existence of a just society?
So now, for a fourth time, Glossip faces a future in which the only certainty is that barring a major legal intervention, November 6th his set to be his last day on this earth. Given that the Supreme Court had denied the stay prior to the Governor’s intervention, it’s unclear what the next steps are for Glossip’s legal team; no doubt things will become clearer in the coming days. For now, let us all take this moment to breathe before we rally again to make sure we do not let the sun go down on Richard Glossip without a fight.
“I don’t want to be a martyr, and I don’t want to die, but if in fact this attention to my case and all that could go wrong in this and that you could actually put an innocent man to death, if it could bring attention in this country to all the people going through this and it could help end the death penalty for everyone, then my life will not be in vain.” –Richard Glossip