The Case of Richard Glossip

We have ended the death penalty in two thirds of the countries around the world and in 18 states in the United States. On Wednesday, New Hampshire may make it 19 (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

By Zack Michaelson, Former AIUSA Board member, 2009 – 2013.

Richard Glossip was sentenced to death in 1997 following a murder-for-hire conviction in the homicide case of motel owner Barry Van Treese in Oklahoma City. However, the only evidence used to prosecute Glossip was a questionable story told by the murderer, a former co-worker of Glossip, Justin Sneed. Sneed was spared the death penalty, receiving a sentence of life without parole, in exchange for his implicating story against Glossip. There is no evidence for Glossip’s role in the murder beyond this implicating story offered in a bargain with prosecutors. Even Justin Sneed’s daughter has filed petitions for clemency, declaring, “[she] strongly believe[s] he is an innocent man sitting on death row.” Richard Glossip has consistently maintained his innocence for nearly twenty years now. So what is the problem?

In his dissent on the Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus by Troy Davis, Justice Scalia stated, “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent.” In the case of Richard Glossip we see a true test of the doctrine that “actual innocence” does not matter. People of conscience must reject that ideology. Justice does matter and must be paramount. The state cannot be entitled by force of plurality to kill its citizens at will, and the justice system must care whether the convicted “actually” killed anyone. In the words of former Justice Harry Blackmun, “the execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder.” Scalia defends his notion under the need to create a nation of laws. But a nation with injustice inculcated into its system should be a nation of laws in need of change.

Glossip’s case, like any other death penalty case, also draws attention to how out-of-step the United States is with the rest of the world on this basic human rights issue. According to Amnesty International research, the only countries that carried out more executions of prisoners than the US in the years 2007-2012 were China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. No government should have the power to kill its citizens at will, and any such action is a violation of basic and inalienable human rights.

Amnesty International section chairs take part in an action against the death penalty during their meeting at Heathrow, London, UK, 9 April 2011.

Glossip’s case has been the focus of advocacy from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, to, to Amnesty International, whose United States section’s Board of Directors sent a letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board in September imploring a re-evaluation of Richard Glossip’s execution.

Over the past year, the case has taken some unexpected turns. Glossip’s execution has been indefinitely suspended while officials investigate the acquisition of a drug “contrary to protocol,” which was not confessed until minutes before his scheduled execution, despite Department of Corrections’ protocol of verifying “execution inventory” 48-hours in advance. Pharmacologists described the drug on hand, potassium acetate, as “a salt—used therapeutically to replenish electrolytes in people who require an IV supplementation.” The discovery of the wrong drug, in addition to the failure to report on time, reveals blatant misconduct of protocol. Such incompetence might explain the botched and torturous execution of previous Oklahoma death row inmate, Clayton Lockett, in 2014.

Justice Stephen Breyer identified many of the fundamental flaws with the death penalty in his Glossip v. Gross dissent: lack of reliability, the arbitrary application of a serious and irreversible punishment, individual suffering caused by long delays, and lack of penological purpose. Justice Breyer opines that the Court should conduct a “full briefing on the basic question” of the death penalty. All people of conscience should never cease to prioritize the abolishment of the death penalty, both domestically and worldwide.