It’s hard to follow the death penalty case of Richard Glossip, the latest inmate headed to execution by the state of Oklahoma, without wondering if his prosecution, conviction and, if it happens, death by lethal injection could have been bungled any more than has already happened.
Glossip, who had no arrest record and no history of violence, was sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. His conviction was based upon testimony from the actual murderer, Justin Sneed, who’d bludgeoned the victim with a bat. In exchange for a life sentence, Sneed testified that Glossip made him do it.
Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Glossip’s first conviction because his lawyer was inept, and the case against him grew weaker by the day afterwards.
As related by Lincoln Caplan in this New Yorker piece, the prosecution then agreed that no physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime scene. Nonetheless, he was convicted and sentenced to death a second time based upon a different factual account given by Sneed — one of eight different accounts he has told, according to Glossip’s lawyers.
After Oklahoma botched the execution of another death row inmate last year through the use of a three-drug cocktail, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Glossip’s scheduled execution while the justices considered a challenge to the use of those drugs.
The high court then sustained the use of that cocktail in June, holding in a 5-4 opinion that Glossip’s attorneys had failed to identify any alternative drug that the state could use.
Attempts at a stay based upon evidence showing innocence, including to the U.S. Supreme Court — which issued a denial over a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer — proved fruitless, and Glossip was set for execution late yesterday.
At the last minute, though, Oklahoma’s governor issued a stay based upon yet another snafu: the state had the wrong drug.
All of which leads to this question: At what point should the state pull back and reconsider whether the death penalty is deserving in a case?
More importantly, at what point does the U.S. Supreme Court say enough is enough?
Caplan argues in his piece that if an abolition of the death penalty by the high court comes soon, Glossip might just be the reason:
It provides a case study in the unreliability of the application of the death sentence. Glossip’s current lawyers have raised serious doubts about his guilt, which make his conviction dubious and his death sentence unjust. His counsel in his first trial was reprehensibly bad. His counsel in his second trial exceeded the very low standard for ineffective counsel, but did a poor cross-examination of Sneed, the main witness against Glossip. From the decision to charge Glossip with a capital crime to some unsavory tactical moves in the second trial, the prosecution was overzealous and may have crossed the line into misconduct.
As Caplan notes, four of the justices are already there, including Breyer, who in his dissent in the June Glossip opinion openly invited a constitutional challenge to the death penalty.
And some experts now suggest that Justice Anthony Kennedy may be ready to cross over, in light of recent statements by Pope Francis that echo Kennedy’s own words in a 2014 opinion overturning the death sentence of an intellectually-disabled Florida man: “The Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the Nation we have been, the Nation we are, and the Nation we aspire to be.”