Richard Glossip Case Shows Injustice of the Death Penalty

On September 30, Richard Glossip was moments away from being killed by Oklahoma government employees via lethal injection. “With minutes to spare,” Governor Mary Fallin stayed the execution—not because of any concern about the justice of the sentence, but because the Department of Corrections had on hand a nonapproved drug for the purpose, CNN reports. Now all executions in the state, including Glossip’s, are “suspended indefinitely” as the state’s attorney general investigates the situation with the drugs.

What was Glossip’s alleged crime, and on what grounds was he convicted of it? The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard one of Glossip’s appeals, offers a fairly thorough background—although the account offered is based partly on the testimony of a potentially unreliable witness.

In 1997, Glossip managed a hotel owned by Barry Van Treese, and he informally hired Justin Sneed to do maintenance work. Apparently Glossip was stealing from Van Treese and otherwise mismanaging the hotel, and Van Treese was conducting an audit. On January 7, Sneed beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat in a hotel room. Sneed testified that Glossip asked him to murder Van Treese and offered him money and job security in exchange.

As NBC reports, Sneed—the man who actually beat Van Treese to death—”cut a deal” for life in prison in exchange for testifying against Glossip.

Unlike many of Glossip’s defenders, I don’t actually think Glossip is innocent; I think he probably conspired with Sneed to murder Van Treese. The case against Glossip is entirely circumstantial, but it’s fairly convincing. He had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime, as they say. This is true despite the fact that an “inmate [where Sneed was imprisoned] allegedly said he heard Sneed brag in prison that he set Glossip up,” as KFOR reports. The details of the case fit together too well against Glossip for me to think the inmate’s hear-say claims establish Glossip’s innocence.

I also think sentencing Glossip to death in horrifically unjust, given the circumstances. Indeed, I think the case illustrates why, in the context of the modern American criminal justice system, the death penalty should be abolished.

Consider some of the major problems with imposing the death penalty in Glossip’s case:

  • In what universe is it fair for the man who actually committed the murder to get a radically less-severe sentence than did the man who only talked about it? It is cruel and unusual to sentence Glossip to death while Sneed—who actually beat Van Treese to death with a bat—gets life in prison.
  • The fact that Sneed obviously sold his testimony against Glossip in exchange for a less-severe penalty should automatically make that testimony inadmissible in court. That fact also renders the evidence against Glossip, on the whole, inadequate to establish Glossip’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in my view. Sneed’s testimony is corrupt. In essence, the prosecution said to Sneed, “Look, we’re going to try to kill you unless you say that Glossip conspired with you.” How is that not testimony under compulsion? In general, I think the practice of eliciting testimony under threat of much more severe criminal penalties is inherently and extremely unjust.
  • Keeping someone on death row for nearly two decades is cruel and unusual, and indeed it constitutes prolonged psychological torture. Granted, much of that delay was caused by the appeals pursued by Glossip and his attorneys. However, it would also be cruel and unusual to effectively tell a man, “Sure, you can let us kill you right now, but you’ll never know if a protracted legal battle might spare your life.” If the death penalty can be applied in a relatively humane, Constitutionally sound way, it would have to be applied swiftly and with due confidence that the legal process was not corrupted. Practically, I think meeting those conditions is impossible—so the alternative is to abolish the death penalty.
  • Last-minute stays in execution are cruel and unusual, and they also constitute psychological torture. In effect, the governor said to Glossip, “Psych! We were going to kill you right away, but now we’re going to wait some indefinite period to kill you so we can make sure the way we kill you is in accordance with largely arbitrary rules.” If that practice is Constitutional, then so should be forcing a person to play Russian roulette with a loaded handgun.
  • The fact that Oklahoma officials brutally tortured a man to death just last year—the death was intentional, the torture was not—renders subsequent attempted similar executions by these officials (or their replacements) cruel and unusual. Imagine reading the story of Clayton Lockett’s death, then realizing that many of the same people responsible for his horrific death will also be responsible for your death. To say the least, you would not be confident of a humane end. Oklahoma’s handling of previous executions imposes psychological torture on others on death row there.

Maybe some people will glibly dismiss my concerns about psychological torture and it constituting cruel and unusual punishment. But I don’t think any person can honestly imagine themselves in Glossip’s position and not recognize the fact that he has been severely (albeit psychologically) tortured. That Van Treese suffered an even worse fate does not justify what government officials have done to Glossip—the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment does not carry the disclaimer “unless the bastard really deserves it.”

I don’t have a firm position on the death penalty in the context of a well-constructed legal system. I’m leaning in the direction of thinking that merely the act of forcing a criminal to anticipate and await death constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, even if the death itself can reliably be made peaceful and painless. But, in the present legal context, those theoretical discussions are largely beside the point.

The fact is that we live in a world in which police officers and prosecutors sometimes lie, in which government officials and juries sometimes are biased, in which prosecutors sometimes put their political ambitions as well as their own convenience before justice, in which defendants often have huge incentives to lie about others on the stand in exchange for lesser sentences, in which tax-funded defense attorneys frequently are severely overworked or just plain incompetent, in which executions sometimes result in torturous deaths. In the world we live in, “Since 1973, over 140 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because of innocence.” How many were killed despite their innocence?

Someday, if we’re able to effectively reform the criminal justice system, we can talk about whether the death penalty properly plays a role in that system. But, at least in the conditions under which we live, the death penalty is unjust and it must be abolished.