Did Richard Glossip hire or order Justin Sneed to kill their mutual boss, Barry Van Treese, 18 years ago in Oklahoma City? It’s unclear -- the best evidence against Glossip is the testimony of Sneed, who, after cooperating with police, received life in prison instead of the death penalty. Glossip wasn’t so lucky. Oklahoma intends to execute him Wednesday, despite a drought of corroborating evidence.
This is where the death penalty gets its full exposure as a ludicrous practice.
If the name Glossip sounds familiar, he was the main plaintiff in the recent case in which the Supreme Court ruled that using midazolam, a light sedative, as the first drug in a three-drug execution cocktail does not expose the condemned to the risk of unconstitutionally excessive pain. That was after the original plaintiff in the four-plaintiff filing, Charles F. Warner, was executed while the case was pending, and reportedly said as the process was underway, “my body is on fire.” In fact, the executions of four other people that appeared to involve significant pain -- Joseph Rudolph Wood III writhed for nearly two hours in Arizona’s death chamber -- began with midazolam, the reason for the legal challenge.
The issue now, though, is not cruel and unusual punishment, but the veracity, and reliability of a conviction. The short version is the lawyer appointed to represent him at the initial trial did such a poor job that a second trial was ordered, and Glossip was once again convicted, though now, as his execution date nears, a third team of pro bono lawyers argue that they have found sufficient evidence that the second team missed to raise fresh questions about the competency of his legal representation throughout the process. And fresh questions about whether he did, in fact, direct Sneed to kill Van Treese.
The case has picked up some celebrity/activist focus (Susan Sarandon, Sister Helen Prejean and Richard Branson, among others). More significantly, a roster of high-profile folks, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who supports the death penalty, in a letter urged Gov. Mary Fallin to order a 60-day reprieve to give the new legal team a chance to develop the evidence they have found.
“We share a deep concern about the integrity of the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and throughout the United States. We are particularly concerned about the danger of executing an innocent man. Could that really happen? In the United States, in 2015?” the letter says. “We also don’t know for sure whether Richard Glossip is innocent or guilty. That is precisely the problem. If we keep executing defendants in cases like this, where the evidence of guilt is tenuous and untrustworthy, we will keep killing innocent people.”
The case also exposes one of the recurring, and highly objectionable, aspects of the death penalty: It falls disproportionately on those with limited means (and on people of color although in this case Glossip is white). And it also hinges on one person playing angles to limit his own exposure to the death penalty or other lengthy sentences, in return for testimony.
My opposition to the death penalty is absolute, and I hope that at some point a majority of the Supreme Court comes to recognize, as many justices have, that the system is too screwed up, and too prone to manipulation, to be relied on when it comes to the execution of someone. Did Sneed lie? It’s hard to say. Which is exactly why Fallin should grant this reprieve. After all, Oklahoma can always kill Glossip later. But if the new evidence shows, post-execution, that he is innocent, the damage is already done, and irreparable.
And I should note that the Death Penalty Information Project counts 112 executions in Oklahoma since 1976, with 49 people currently on death row -- and 10 death row exonerations. That’s a pretty high failure rate for any state to be rushing people to the death chamber.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.