Oklahoma really, really wants to execute Richard Glossip whose execution is now scheduled for September 22. When Oklahoma announced its plan to execute 25 people in 29 months, it included Glossip on the list. Glossip’s is one of this country’s most notorious death cases.
Oklahoma’s plan to put him to death marks the fourth time that Glossip has had an execution date. On three previous occasions, he has eaten his “last” meal and said his goodbyes to his family, only to be spared at the last minute.
As Vice News reports, his first execution, back in 2015, “was delayed due to a Supreme Court case against the state. The second, later that year, was stayed a mere three hours before Glossip was scheduled to be put to death. A new execution date was set for that same month but was then cancelled after the state discovered they had the wrong drug.”
Whatever the outcome of Oklahoma’s latest effort, Glossip’s case illustrates the many ways in which the death penalty betrays America’s values and commitments.
It offers an example of unfairness and arbitrariness in the way death sentences are handed out, a process that is incompatible with this country’s commitment to equal protection under the law.
Glossip brought a 2015 Supreme Court case that highlights our continuing and futile search for humane methods of execution, despite the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
And his case reminds us of the very real risk of putting innocent people to death, a possibility that shocks the conscience and is out of step with our traditions and values.
Let’s start with the unfairness of Glossip’s death sentence.
He was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in an alleged murder-for-hire plot. Glossip supposedly paid his co-defendant, Justin Sneed, to kill Barry Van Treese in 1997. Van Treese owned the motel where Glossip was the manager.
Sneed, a maintenance man at the motel, stabbed and beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat. He took money from the motel and confessed to the robbery and killing soon after he was arrested.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Sneed took a deal that the prosecution offered him after the police told that Glossip was pinning the blame solely on him. The deal: plead guilty and testify against Glossip in exchange for a life in prison sentence.
Sneed told the police that Glossip wanted Van Treese killed so he “could run the motel without him being the boss.”
Such plea bargains play an important role in the prosecution of death cases.
As Kent Scheidegger wrote in 2009, “More defendants plea bargain to a life or long sentence in states where the death penalty is available. The average county with the death penalty disposes of 18.9% of murder cases with a plea and a long sentence, compared to 5.0% in counties without the death penalty.”
Glossip’s is one of the countless death cases in which one person gets off with a lighter sentence after providing incriminating evidence against someone else.
From the start, Glossip, who had never before been arrested, maintained his innocence. When he was offered a plea bargain that would have spared his life, he refused to accept the deal and was convicted at trial.
Since his initial death sentence Glossip also has tried to expose the cruelty of execution by lethal injection, in particular when it involves the sedative midazolam. In litigation that reached the Supreme Court, he contended that midazolam’s unreliability would make his execution cruel and inhumane.
My research on lethal injection revealed that midazolam executions, on average, take longer to complete and are more likely to be botched than executions using other drug combinations. Some of those botched executions, including the Oklahoma executions of Clayton Lockett in 2014 and John Grant in 2021, were gruesome spectacles of cruelty.
Nonetheless, the Court held that Glossip failed to show that midazolam executions created a “risk of severe pain and that the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.”
After the Court’s ruling, Glossip joined another lawsuit that again challenged Oklahoma’s lethal injection drug cocktail. But in June 2022, a federal district judge, applying the test devised by the Court in his earlier case, ruled that the plaintiffs had fallen “well short of clearing the bar set by the Supreme Court” for lethal injection challenges.
If the state succeeds in its latest plan to kill Glossip, he may suffer the same kind of death as Lockett or Grant because Oklahoma is again planning to use midazolam in its executions.
But we should return to the most troubling aspect of this case: Glossip may well be innocent.
After Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt refused their request to review problems in Glossip’s case in June 2021, a group of Oklahoma legislators commissioned an independent investigation. It was carried out by ReedSmith, a prestigious Oklahoma City law firm.
As Vice News notes, the firm reviewed “12,000 documents, 36 witness interviews, seven juror interviews, and other evidence.”
Its report presented extensive evidence of problems with the original police investigation and showed that the state “had intentionally destroyed significant evidence before trial.”
It also found that the police had unduly influenced Sneed to implicate Glossip. Sneed did so only “after the detectives mentioned Glossip’s name to Sneed six times during his interrogation.” The investigation also “uncovered additional evidence, never presented to the jury or to any court, that would likely have led to a different outcome” in his case.
The report concluded that “no reasonable juror hearing the complete record would have convicted Richard Glossip of first-degree murder” and, as a result, that his trial “cannot be relied on to support a murder-for-hire conviction. Nor can it provide a basis for the government to take the life of Richard E. Glossip.”
It seems unimaginable, in the face of these findings, that Oklahoma would proceed with its planned execution. But problems like those uncovered in Glossip’s case are a regular occurrence in America’s death penalty system.
The Innocence Project notes that what it calls “Snitch testimony,” namely an incarcerated individual or co-defendant testifying against someone else, is “the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases, accounting for 45 percent of wrongful death penalty convictions since 1973.”
Today 34 state legislators in Oklahoma, including 28 Republicans, want the state to give Richard Glossip a new trial instead of executing him. One of them, Republican Representative Kevin McDugle, a long-time death penalty supporter, has promised that “‘If we put Richard Glossip to death, I will fight in this state to abolish the death penalty, simply because the process is not pure.’”
McDugle’s vow may not ensure that justice is done in Glossip’s case. But Glossip’s is far from an isolated example of injustice in the death penalty system. Problems of unfairness, cruelty, and the risk of executing the innocent are all too common. And the death penalty process is hardly “pure.”
That is why Americans everywhere should join in efforts to end it—and soon.