While waiting to be led to the death chamber on September 30, 2015, Richard Glossip was eating his third last meal: a medium Pizza Hut double-bacon, double-cheese pizza, two orders of Long John Silver’s fish and chips, a Wendy’s Baconator burger, and strawberry malt.
Two weeks before, on September 16, Glossip had been granted a two-week stay hours before his scheduled execution after his lawyers filed an emergency request.
On this third attempt to kill him, the 3 P.M. start time for the execution came and went. As his life played out like a grim version of Groundhog Day, Glossip paced back and forth in his cell wearing only his underwear. Outside, his family, assuming he had been executed, began grieving. After an agonizing 45-minute wait, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin announced a 37-day stay of execution, citing concerns with the state’s lethal-injection protocol.
“Last minute questions were raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection,” Fallin said in a statement. “After consulting with the attorney general and the Department of Corrections, I have issued a 37-day stay of execution while the state addresses those questions and ensures it is complying fully with the protocols approved by federal courts.”
Following a botched execution in 2014 and two drug mix-ups in 2015, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (now the head of the EPA), said he will not request any execution dates in Oklahoma until he is confident that the death penalty can be carried out without any problems. A few months later, a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission was established to conduct an independent review of Oklahoma’s capital-punishment system, and its findings could have enormous impact on when Oklahoma resumes executions. Meanwhile, Glossip’s fate hangs in the balance.
Incredibly, the delay is only the latest twist in a case that has spanned more than two decades. The story began on January 7, 1997, when 19-year-old Justin Sneed murdered Barry Van Treese, a motel owner for whom both Sneed and Glossip worked, with a baseball bat. The police found Sneed’s fingerprints all over the bloody crime scene and in the victim’s vehicle. Sneed later confessed to the killing, in an interrogation that will be shown in the series. The tape shows that after being told that identifying someone else as the planner would help him avoid death row, Sneed said that Glossip hired him to murder Van Treese. Despite a lack of corroborating forensic evidence, Glossip was sentenced to death.
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Below are six facts about this complicated case that continues to make headlines:
- Glossip was convicted almost entirely on the testimony of one man — the murderer. Although police found fingerprints belonging to Sneed at the crime scene and in the victim’s car, there was no forensic evidence found to link Glossip to this murder. Before the police had time to focus on him, Sneed fled the scene of his crime. A week later, Sneed was captured and confessed to the killing but, after intense prodding by two very aggressive detectives, claimed that Glossip had promised him money to kill Van Treese. For testifying against Glossip, the state agreed to waive the death penalty against Sneed. Glossip insisted that he was innocent and refused to accept a plea bargain. In 1998, an Oklahoma jury convicted him of the murder based almost entirely upon the word of Sneed, and sentenced him to death. But in 2001, a unanimous Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the conviction, calling the case “extremely weak” and finding that Glossip had received unconstitutionally ineffective assistance by his counsel. In August 2004, Glossip, now represented by a lawyer that had only been leading the defense effort for a few months, was convicted by a second Oklahoma jury of the murder and sentenced to death. Once again, the star witness for the prosecution was Justin Sneed. Glossip’s new lawyers have uncovered evidence that Sneed admitted to lying about this testimony.
- The midazolam controversy began with the botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
Clayton Lockett was convicted in 2000 of murder, rape, and kidnapping, and his execution on April 29, 2014, marked the first time that the controversial drug midazolam was used in a lethal injection in Oklahoma. The process went horribly wrong when Lockett, 38, regained consciousness and died an agonizing death that spanned over 40 minutes. Witnesses to the execution said it was like something “out of a horror movie” as he writhed and moaned in anguish. Following Lockett’s botched execution, Glossip and several other death-row inmates in Oklahoma petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to have their executions stayed. On June 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol in a sharply divided 5-4 opinion in Glossip v. Gross. The court found that lethal injections using midazolam do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and that condemned prisoners can only challenge their method of execution after providing a known and available alternative method. Justice Breyer wrote what is now a well-known and oft-sited dissent that called for the end of capital punishment in America today.
One-third of the lethal cocktail that Glossip was set to receive during his execution is a sedative, often used for anesthesia, called midazolam. It’s meant to cause unconsciousness, but opponents say it doesn’t induce the deep unconsciousness necessary to prevent prisoners from experiencing the painful effects of the two other drugs in the protocol.
Glossip has a growing number of supporters — including Susan Sarandon, Sir Richard Branson, Pope Francis, and Sister Helen Prejean — who believe in his innocence and are campaigning for his release. The high-profile case attracted international attention after Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, who portrayed nun and death-penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean in the movie Dead Man Walking, took up his cause. Sister Prejean, who runs the Ministry Against the Death Penalty out of Louisiana, has served as Glossip’s spiritual adviser, frequently visited him in prison, and was present to witness his execution, on September 30, 2015. In an open letter to The Oklahoman on the scheduled date of Glossip’s execution, Richard Branson wrote of his support for a “man, father, son, and fellow human being” who was convicted of first-degree murder 17 years ago amid “a breathtaking lack of evidence.” Even Sneed’s own daughter believes that his testimony about Glossip’s role in the murder could be inaccurate. In a letter attributed to her to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, she wrote, “For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony.”
The interrogation tapes of both Justin Sneed and Richard Glossip were never played for either of Glossip’s jury trials. The tapes, parts of which you will see in the series Killing Richard Glossip, show Justin Sneed being interrogated by Detective Bemo and his partner and only confessing after being told that they were holding Glossip, and that if he confessed that Glossip had hired him to murder Barry van Treese, Sneed would avoid death row. Additionally, Richard’s interrogation tape shows him clearly and unequivocally denying he had anything to do with the murder. According to lawyers and trial experts, Sneed’s interrogation video would have been very useful for the defense in the trials. Unfortunately, and shockingly for experienced death-penalty attorneys, Glossip’s lawyers in both trials never introduced them.
States started using the controversial drug midazolam due to the scarcity of other lethal-injection drugs. Lethal injections were originally administered with a three-drug process, first using a barbiturate called sodium thiopental, which anesthetized the prisoner. The second drug, pancuronium bromide, induced paralysis. And the third, potassium chloride, stopped the heart. The first drug was particularly important: Absent a proper dose of sodium thiopental, the effects of the second and third drugs would be indisputably excruciating, akin to being burned alive. But, due in part to activist pressure on international suppliers, sodium thiopental became almost impossible to find. So death-penalty states began experimenting with replacement drugs, including midazolam — which, as a benzodiazipane and not a barbiturate, is far from an ideal substitute — according to The Intercept.
For now, executions in Oklahoma are on hold, and future executions around the country are up in the air. In recent years, 30 states have either formally abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in more than eight years. Recently, attorneys for nine death-row inmates challenged Arkansas’ execution protocol, and when their state supreme court upheld it, the inmates cited Glossip’s case when asking that the U.S. Supreme Court revisit the ruling. “Glossip has resulted in unmitigated disaster in Oklahoma,” the Arkansas inmates’ lawyers wrote. “Since the Supreme Court approved of the midazolam protocol there, Oklahoma authorities have shown that they cannot properly carry out the protocol. Oklahoma executed one prisoner with the wrong drug in January 2015 … and it almost executed another with the wrong drug before a member of the execution squad caught the error hours before the injection was to occur,” the attorneys added in their court filing. “This state of affairs gives the U.S. Supreme Court a good reason to revisit Glossip.”
Main photo: Richard Glossip [Sky News / YouTube (screenshot)]