Like many convicted murderers, Richard Glossip insists he is innocent. Unlike most of them, however, Glossip and his lawyers have amassed so much exculpatory evidence that today, after 17 years of litigation and mounting public outrage, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution with just three hours to go.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who holds the power to commute Glossip’s sentence with the stroke of a pen, has chosen not to exercise that power, stating that the “court is the proper place for Richard Glossip and his legal team to argue the merits of his case.”
That deferential stance is in marked contrast to her view one year ago, when she successfully pushed to execute Clayton Lockett (who was almost certainly guilty) over a stay from the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The stay was issued because of controversies over midazolam, the untested drug slated to be used for his lethal injection.
The result was horrifying. Lockett writhed in agony for half an hour, before finally dying of a heart attack. His lawyer said he was “tortured to death.”
It was Fallin who singlehandedly pushed for the execution, which was subsequently botched, making an unlikely hero out of a convicted murderer.
So why is Fallin, who overrode judicial authority a year ago, suddenly deferring to judicial authority today? Despite mountains of evidence, she seems content to let an apparently innocent man die.
As the last hours of Glossip’s life ticked away, Governor Fallin’s Twitter feed documented her day at a meeting with the Consul General of Canada, a children’s fitness program, and “learning to milk a cow at Septemberfest.”
In same period, Glossip’s case has generated an outcry from across the political spectrum: Sister Helen Prejean (of Dead Man Walking fame) and the actress who portrayed her, Susan Sarandon; celebrities including Richard Branson, George Takei, Bill Maher; conservative Republican, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma; former Oklahoma University football coach Barry Switzer; Amnesty International, the ACLU, MoveOn, The Innocence Project, and the New York Times editorial board. Some 300,000 people have signed a petition urging Fallin to stop the execution.
We’ll never know if the outrage, expressed largely in social media played a role in the appeals court’s decision, but the attention cannot have hurt his cause.
Indeed, combining legal strategizing with social media savvy, his lawyers saved some of the best evidence for last, releasing affidavits within the last few months (and again within the last few days) that strongly suggest his innocence.
According to the trial record, Glossip was convicted (for hiring a hit man to kill his boss. The only evidence, however, was the testimony of the hit man, Justin Sneed, who was a 19-year-old meth addict at the time. Sneed changed his story several times and said he was “encouraged” by the cops to confess. After being sentenced to life in prison, he boasted that he set Glossip up.
Moreover, neither jury that tried Glossip (a second trial was ordered to due to ineffective counsel) was made aware of the hit man’s shifting stories, or the plea deal he reached cut with prosecutors.
Recent evidence has turned Glossip’s case upside down.
In October 2014, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board received a letter allegedly from Sneed’s daughter saying that “for a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But [he] has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty.”
Astonishingly, however, the letter came too late and so the parole board did not consider it at all—and Sneed’s daughter subsequently changed her story.
Most recently, as reported by The Intercept, Glossip’s lawyers obtained multiple prisoner affidavits that attest to Sneed’s guilt. One said that “among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river.”
Adding to the outrage is the fact that the planned lethal injection was to use the same drug cocktail that caused Lockett (and at least two other people) to writhe in agony, and which was narrowly decided by the Supreme Court not to constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”
All of this – the late-arriving letter, the affidavits, the public outcry – makes Glossip’s case deserving of clemency, which is built into the judicial system precisely for cases like this, where evidence shows up that strongly suggests that someone is innocent, even if the legal process makes it difficult (or impossible) to enter it into the record.
Unlike last year, Governor Fallin is staying out of it.
“For months,” she stated, “and as part of a larger publicity campaign opposing the death penalty, Richard Glossip’s attorneys have been publicly claiming to have new evidence that exonerates their client. During that time, my office and I have urged them to bring that so-called evidence to the proper venue: a court of law.”
Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater was even more blunt, calling Sister Prejean’s press conference part of a “bullshit PR campaign.”.
To be sure, Glossip is not entirely innocent. Death-penalty opponents don’t mention his own conflicting stories—the newest involving an alleged lover who was present for the murder, and who Glossip says he lied to protect—and his probable involvement in petty theft and possible drug dealing at the motel where the murder took place. One juror recently spoke out to say that the jury saw him as a Charles Manson-like figure.
For his part, the brother of the victim in the case said that however much pain lethal injection may cause, “It hurts like hell to have your head bashed in with a baseball bat. Do not feel sorry for the bastard who took my [brother’s] life.”
Nor is Glossip’s case that unique. The National Registry of Exonerations lists 115 people who had been on death row, but who were later exonerated—29 of whom were convicted under circumstances like Glossip’s, with a former suspect testifying against them. The Innocence Project’s Barry Scheck noted in an open letter to Fallin that at least two people have been executed and subsequently exonerated by DNA evidence.
Ultimately, it was the appeals court which acted to spare Glossip’s life, for now, and which next will decide his fate. The court may grant one of the four motions his attorneys have filed, calling for new hearings, post-conviction relief, and more. Or they may not, and Glossip may yet be executed on September 30.
But as Glossip’s fate hangs in the balance, it’s clear who has stepped aside, and who has stepped up. Uncharacteristically and unaccountably, Governor Fallin has withdrawn her office from the judicial process. But where the governor has retreated, the public has stepped in.
Whatever the future holds, Richard Glossip will go to sleep tonight, in his cell on death row, and will wake up tomorrow. In addition to the mounting pile of evidence suggesting his innocence, he may well have Twitter to thank.