Hours before Oklahoma intended to execute Richard Glossip, a state appeals court on Wednesday temporarily halted the execution to allow the judges time to consider his appeals.
Glossip’s case has wound through the U.S. legal system for nearly two decades, making its way to the Supreme Court this year as part of a broader debate over how executions are carried out. On Wednesday, despite renewed attention on the case and calls for a delay, Oklahoma had intended to execute Glossip in what would have been the state’s first execution since the Supreme Court said the state’s lethal-injection protocol was constitutional.
Attorneys for Glossip had filed an emergency request Tuesday asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the execution, arguing that Glossip was improperly tried and sentenced. They also asked Gov. Mary Fallin (R) to stay the execution, arguing that the lethal injection should be halted due to new evidence, but Fallin denied these requests.
The execution has been stayed until Sept. 30, according to the order signed by Clancy Smith, presiding judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
Fallin said Wednesday afternoon that she would respect the court’s decision in the case.
“As I have repeatedly said, court is the proper place for Richard Glossip and his legal team to argue the merits of his case,” the governor said in a statement. “My office will respect whatever decision the court makes, as we have throughout this process.”
Glossip’s execution hour arrived amid renewed questions about his guilt and high-profile calls for the execution to be called off. The execution was so close that Glossip had already been given his final meal — including chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, fish and chips and a strawberry malt — which state protocol says must be delivered the night before a lethal injection.
This case case focused on the killing of a motel owner named Barry Van Treese. In 1997, Van Treese was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Glossip, who worked for Van Treese, was found guilty of paying another motel worker to kill him. Justin Sneed, who confessed to killing Van Treese, testified against Glossip, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole while Glossip received a death sentence.
Glossip, 52, was convicted of murder and twice sentenced to death. He was first sentenced in 1998, but that sentence was overturned due to what a state court deemed ineffective legal counsel, and he was sentenced again in 2004.
But Glossip’s attorneys argue that executing him based on Sneed’s testimony “risks a wrongful execution.” They also submitted an affidavit from a man who said that while in an Oklahoma state prison, he heard Sneed say that Glossip hadn’t done anything.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, signed a letter published last week that called on Fallin to”prevent a deadly mistake” and stay the execution.
“We also don’t know for sure whether Richard Glossip is innocent or guilty,” they wrote in the letter. “That is precisely the problem.”
Two other prominent voices opposing the execution were Sister Helen Prejean, a prominent death penalty opponent, and Susan Sarandon, an activist and actor who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Prejean in the movie “Dead Man Walking.” More than 236,000 people had signed a petition on MoveOn.org from Prejean and Sarandon asking Fallin to delay the execution due to “a breathtaking lack of evidence” in the case.
The stay is only for 14 days as of now, so we need to redouble our efforts on Richard's behalf. Get involved! We can save this man's life!
— Sister Helen Prejean (@helenprejean) September 16, 2015
Glossip had said this week that he remained optimistic that the lethal injection would be called off.
“I’ll hope for the best,” he told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “I won’t let it bring me down. If you’ve got to go out… you don’t want to be bitter and angry about it.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement Wednesday he was confident that the appeals court would “conclude there is nothing worthy which would lead the court to overturn” Glossip’s guilty verdict and sentence.
“The family of Barry Van Treese has waited 18 agonizing years for justice to be realized for his brutal death,” Pruitt said.
The execution scheduled for Wednesday marked the second time this year that Oklahoma had tried to put Glossip to death. A January execution date was delayed when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case. 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.
Lockett, a convicted murderer, grimaced and kicked during his prolonged execution, one of three lethal injections that went awry last year and drew increased scrutiny to the fractured way executions are carried out in the United States.
After the Lockett execution, Oklahoma postponed all executions for months while it investigated what happened and tinkered with its execution protocol. The state’s investigation said it found problems with the insertion of the IV meant to deliver the lethal chemicals, and Oklahoma later altered its lethal injection policy to include a higher doze of the sedative midazolam.
In January, the inmate originally scheduled to die the same night as Lockett was put to death using this new formula. The night that inmate was executed, four Supreme Court justices said they would have stayed the lethal injection due to questions about the use of midazolam. The sedative is intended to knock inmates out during executions, but experts question whether it can provide the level of unconsciousness needed for lethal injections to be painless. It was also used last year in the execution of an Arizona inmate who took nearly two hours to die, which added to the questions around using the drug in lethal injections.
The Supreme Court said in January that it would hear a challenge to Oklahoma’s execution protocol. When the justices heard oral arguments about that case (which bore Glossip’s name), the hearing turned into a heated debate over capital punishment. The court later upheld Oklahoma’s protocol as constitutional, while Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, questioned whether capital punishment itself was unconstitutional.
Fallin had rejected requests to stay Glossip’s execution, most recently saying Tuesday that her office was not swayed by the evidence presented this week by his attorneys.
“After reviewing it with my legal team, we have determined the vast majority of the limited content they have presented is not new; furthermore, we find none of the material to be credible evidence of Richard Glossip’s innocence,” Fallin said in a statement.
She also urged Glossip’s attorneys to submit their information to a court that could determine if a stay was warranted. In addition, Fallin also expressed her sympathy for “the Van Treese family, who has suffered greatly during this long ordeal.”
In an order released Wednesday afternoon, the state appeals court said that it was pushing the execution back to review the applications for post-conviction relief and other motions filed by Glossip’s attorneys on Tuesday.
“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,” the order stated.
Glossip’s execution had been scheduled for 3 p.m. on Wednesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
This post has been updated.