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A Possibly Innocent Oklahoma Death Row Inmate Caught a Break Hours Before His Execution

A court issued a last-minute decision that saved Richard Glossip's life—for now.

by Allie Conti
Sep 16 2015, 6:45pm

Richard Glossip just got a stay of execution. Photo via Change.org

There are two versions of what happened on January 7, 1997, at a Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, but both end up with Barry Von Treese getting beaten to death with a baseball bat. Each account centers on his former employees. In the first, Justin Sneed, a 19-year-old maintenance man with a meth problem, kills the motel owner in a robbery attempt gone wrong. In another, a 33-year-old manager named Richard Glossip hires Sneed to do the job out of fear of losing both his job and the housing that came with it.

Sneed confessed to the brutal bludgeoning, and received a life sentence. But in two separate trials, a jury bought the murder-for-hire story, and sentenced Glossip to death by lethal injection.

The problem is there's no physical evidence linking Glossip to the crime. And on Monday, the death row inmate's legal team released a new affidavit they say bolsters the case for Glossip's innocence. That didn't sway Governor Mary Fallin, though, and Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater has called the announcement "a bullshit PR campaign."

The last-minute gambit seems to have paid off anyway: Glossip's execution was scheduled for 3 PM local time Wednesday, but a two-week stay was just issued by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

Besides the short-term respite, Glossip's case is especially important because it's been at the heart of a debate that almost abolished the death penalty in Oklahoma.

As the New Republic reported, last year saw a major shortage of the drugs typically used to execute inmates in America. Some states, including Oklahoma, started using new ones, including midazolam, which is supposed to knock people out so they die without pain. The switch wasn't without incident: Last April, Oklahoma officials tried to kill Clayton D. Lockett by pushing a catheter through a vein near his groin. He appeared to be in pain, and the sight was so gruesome that executioners closed the curtains as he struggled. He eventually died of a heart attack.

In January, the US Supreme Court ordered that the executions of Glossip and three others be held while the justices decided if drugs like midazolam would cause them an inhumane amount of suffering. But on June 29, the high court upheld the death penalty method.

In his opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia made fun of his peers and their "plea for judicial abolition of the death penalty," referring to them as "a vocal minority of the Court, waving over their heads a ream of the most recent abolitionist studies (a superabundant genre) as though they have discovered the lost folios of Shakespeare, [who] insist that now, at long last, the death penalty must be abolished for good."

On Monday, Gossip's new lead attorney Don Knight held a press conference in which he unveiled a sworn affidavit from someone who once was in jail with Sneed, the maintenance man. In it, a man named Michael Scott swears that Sneed used to brag about setting Glossip up.

But Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater echoed Justice Scalia's opinion in his response to the new evidence. "This is not about a legal process, this is a PR campaign," he said. "All they are trying to do is abolish the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma and this country by spreading a bunch of garbage."

Robert Blecker, a professor at New York law school and an advocate for capital punishment in America, says this case is proof that we need a more refined system when it comes to meting out death.

"I've long maintained that the burden of persuasion in capital cases should be higher at the penalty phase than the guilt phase," Blecker said. "From what I know of this case... there was at least a residual doubt of his guilt and a moral doubt that he deserves to die for it, if he did it. I would reserve the death penalty for other situations—where the crime more clearly warrants it, and the proof more certainly establishes it."

On Tuesday, Glossip's defense team said there's even more evidence that could prove their client innocent, and asked for 60 days to pursue it.

"Since we began investigating this case, and once publicly highlighting it, we have received tip after tip—telephone messages at 1:00 AM, and emails at all hours," they wrote the governor. "Such information is still pouring in, but we have not been able to investigate all of it."

Now they've been given 14 days.

"At first I was angry at Justin, but now I feel sorry for him," Glossip told CNN back in January. "He's afraid of how Oklahoma will kill him if he owns up to what really happened, just like I am afraid of how they'll kill me."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.