Oklahoma man's execution halted amid larger lethal injection debate

Richard Glossip was granted a two-week stay Wednesday just hours before he was scheduled to be executed. This move comes among several high-profile cases that have brought lethal injection under question. 

Janelle Stecklein/Community Newspaper Holdings/AP
Death row inmate Richard Glossip is pictured at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., in November 2014. Mr. Glossip's attorneys said Monday that they will petition the Supreme Court to halt his execution, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

An Oklahoma man’s lethal injection was delayed for the second time Wednesday amid appeals to revisit the evidence.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Richard Glossip was scheduled to be the state’s first execution since the US Supreme Court deemed the lethal-injection protocol legal. However, a state appeals court agreed to move Mr. Glossip’s execution date to Sept. 30 with just hours to spare.

“Due to Glossip’s last minute filing, and in order for this Court to give fair consideration to the materials included with his subsequent application for post-conviction relief, we hereby grant an emergency stay of execution for two weeks,” said the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

In 1997, Richard Glossip had allegedly paid a motel worker, Justin Sneed, to kill motel owner Barry Van Treese. Though Mr. Glossip was not the killer, Mr. Sneed testified against Glossip. Glossip was convicted of murder and given the death sentence, while Sneed was sentenced to life in prison without parole in return for his testimony.  

Glossip’s conviction was overturned in 2004 due to ineffective legal counsel, but once again, jurors found Glossip guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death again that same year.

Glossip was originally scheduled for an injection this January that was called off when the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, though the case wasn’t actually heard until June. “The court’s focus was not on the specifics of Glossip’s case, and the justices were instead asked about Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, the source of considerable debate since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett last year,” reports The Washington Post.

Convicted for murder and rape, Mr. Lockett’s execution was highly publicized due to the state’s use of the drug midazolam, intended as a sedative. But the drug dosage given was apparently not enough. “Lockett's execution was one of the longest in U.S. history; he moaned and writhed on the gurney for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack,” reported CNN.

The drug caused problems in two other cases as well, leaving Dennis McGuire agonizing for 26 minutes in Ohio, and Joseph Wood gasping for two hours before dying in Arizona.

The high-profile cases brought lethal injection to the federal courts, with opponents arguing that midazolam “might not sufficiently mask pain” during execution. Dale Baich, the lawyer who represents some Oklahoma death row inmates, deemed the drug “inappropriate” and “inhumane.”

But after further investigation of IV-insertion problems, the Supreme Court upheld that Oklahoma’s protocol was constitutional in a 5-4 ruling. However, some Justices continued to question the constitutionality of the death penalty itself.

“I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in a dissent. “At the very least, the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question.”

Justice Breyer’s remarks echo what Justice Sonia Sotomayor reminded the Supreme Court in a dissent regarding the Oklahoma execution of Charles Warner in January. “The Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death,” she stated.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments.

Overall, use of the death penalty is in decline, with Nebraska becoming the latest state to abolish capital punishment. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 2014 saw the lowest number of executions since 1994, and the 72 death sentences imposed by US Courts last year is down from 315 in 1994.

Despite this, capital punishment still exists both federally and in 31 states. But it remains problematic as a judicial tool, according to Justice Breyer. “For one thing, despite the difficulty of investigating the circumstances surrounding an execution for a crime that took place long ago, researchers have found convincing evidence that, in the past three decades, innocent people have been executed,” he said.

The problem boils down to the fallibility of the judicial system, determining without doubt those convicted are truly guilty or not. “How do we preserve the integrity of our justice system and our courts if we send condemned inmates to the lethal injection chamber with no more certainty of their guilt than a coin flip?” questioned law professor Robert J. Smith and G. Ben Cohen, counsel at the Promise of Justice Initiative, in an article posted on Slate.

“As more states consider joining Nebraska in abolishing capital punishment, they may create a momentum that will, in time, sway the U.S. Supreme Court,” suggests Time reporter David Von Drehle.

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