by Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – It was a long week for Richard Glossip and many others, but to some events were so shocking that five days seemed like just a few hours.
Monday (September 28), the Department of Corrections received a go-ahead to execute Richard Glossip, convicted in an alleged “murder-for-hire” at a local hotel back in 1997.
A sharply divided Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) ruled 3-2 vote to green-light Glossip’s execution for Wednesday (September 30). Two members favored a stay, while three members of the panel said the state for proceed.
Don Knight and his team of lawyers, working pro bono to stop the execution and passionate to present what they consider new evidence in the case, wrote anew to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, pleading for a 60-day reprieve so they could present their recently-gathered information to an Oklahoma court.
They argued in a September 29 (Tuesday) letter to the Sooner State’s chief executive that their most recent filing “with the OCCA occurred too late for it to be considered.”
The lawyers stressed those two court members who cited “substantive claims of real innocence” in their dissent. Further, they pointed to a recent interview with Justin Sneed, the man who beat Barry Van Treese to death with a baseball bat. In two trials, Sneed has testified Glossip paid him to kill Van Treese.
In arguing for Glossip, the lawyers in their September 29 letter contrasted Sneed’s personal history with Glossip’s, pleading for more time to present their evidence to the Pardon and Parole Board, in hopes that three or more members of that five-person panel would vote for clemency.
They said, “This will not set [Glossip] free, but it will free the State from the permanent stain that will be caused by the execution of an innocent man. … Oklahoma deserved a chance to stop this from happening.”
On Wednesday came word that Pope Francis, fresh from his widely-covered visit to the United States, had sent Fallin a personal plea to support the value of human life, affirming mercy and stopping Glossip’s execution.
At the McAlester State Penitentiary, Glossip was for the second time served his “last meal.” As the day wore on, state officials indicated they would await word from the nation’s High Court before proceeding with the execution.
Not long before 3 p.m., Glossip was alone, waiting for execution when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a brief ruling denying the condemned man a stay. However, Justice Stephen Breyer said he wanted to hear the appeal, and to consider the constitutionality of the ultimate sanction.
As time passed, reporters and others wondered when the execution would occur, or if it might be at least temporarily delayed.
About an hour after the intended time of death, Corrections officials said the execution would not be held because the state had received one wrong ingredient for the lethal “cocktail” of drugs approved under the state’s protocols.
Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement around the same time, saying, “Last minute questions were raised Wednesday about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection.
“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.”
Some reports had hinted Glossip was on the gurney when he got news of his reprieve. But a CNN reporter said he sat in a room near the execution chamber, “for two hours with nothing but his underwear and an excruciating uncertainty. He asked for his clothes back after a while. Guards gave him a sheet instead.”
Through a spokesman, Attorney General Scott Pruitt soon indicated his displeasure with developments in McAlester.
Then, on Thursday, 37 days became something more.
Pruitt filed on behalf of the state a petition asking OCCA for an “indefinite stay” in all pending executions, a total of three that were scheduled to take place before the end of October (Glossip, as well as John Marion Grant and Benjamin Cole).
Pruitt said, “The state owes it to the people of Oklahoma to ensure that, on their behalf, it can properly and lawfully administer the sentence of death imposed by juries for the most heinous crimes. Not until shortly before the scheduled execution did the Department of Corrections notify my office that it did not obtain the necessary drugs to carry out the execution in accordance with the protocol. Until my office knows more about these circumstances and gains confidence that DOC can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol, I am asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to issue an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions.
“I am mindful of the families who have suffered an agonizing time through this process, and my heart breaks for them. At least three families have waited a combined 48 years for closure and finality after losing a loved one,” he added. “Yet, they deserve to know, and all Oklahomans need to know with certainty, that the system is working as intended.”
Stunned at the development, attorney Knight told reporters, for himself and colleagues, “The Oklahoma Court of Appeals needs to rule. Mr. Glossip’s legal defense team strongly supports this request.”
Knight also said, “The governor did the right thing. It is frightening that lethal objection can’t be figured out. Hopefully, the extra time will bring us more witnesses who know that Justin Sneed is a liar.”
Rev. Adam Leathers of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) commented that the group was “grateful for …. Pruitt’s request … to suspend all executions.”
He continued, “We ask our fellow Oklahomans to consider all of the issues over the availability and supposed ‘safety’ of the three-drug cocktail, as well as all of the repeated execution postponements and doubt of guilt surround Richard Glossip’s case.”
Leathers, spokesman for the group – which opposed executions in all cases – concluded, “How many resources have we as a state wasted and accomplished nothing more than convincing the rest of the world we lack civility?”
On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled unanimously (5-0) to grant the open-ended stay – in effect, a moratorium on executions in Oklahoma. At least, for the time being.