Oklahoma death row inmate’s case will leave lasting legacy, activist says

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean says inmate Richard Glossip's case has reshaped American views on execution

Death row inmate Richard Glossip is seen at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma on Nov. 21, 2014.
Janelle Stecklein / Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. / AP

Death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean told Al Jazeera that Oklahoma death row inmate Richard “Eugene” Glossip, who was granted a last-minute stay of execution on Wednesday, will have successfully changed American views on the death penalty “if he lives or if he dies.”

Glossip, 52, was charged in the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese, his employer at an Oklahoma City motel. With a dearth of physical evidence, Glossip was convicted primarily on testimony given by Justin Sneed, 38, who was given a life sentence in exchange for his confession that Glossip hired him to beat Van Treese to death. Glossip has maintained his innocence.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals granted Glossip a two-week stay of execution hours before he was set to die at 3 p.m. local time, news site NewsOk.com reported. During those two weeks, judges will consider new evidence in Glossip's case that state authorities have derided as a "publicity campaign" for death penalty opponents. 

An argument filed to an Oklahoma appeals court late Tuesday included a signed affidavit from a convict in Sneed’s prison claiming that Sneed had been “bragging about how Glossip took the fall” for Van Treese’s murder, said Prejean, Glossip’s spiritual adviser. The Roman Catholic nun added that the new evidence could vindicate Glossip.

Glossip’s attorney, Don Knight, did not immediately respond to an interview request. Sneed was also not immediately available for comment, and has declined to speak to other media on the subject. 

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Tuesday lambasted the request for a stay “as part of a larger publicity campaign opposing the death penalty.”

“After reviewing [Glossip’s new evidence] 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 press release.

Prejean, whose autobiographical account of her relationship with a prisoner inspired the 1995 blockbuster film “Dead Man Walking,” said she believes Glossip is innocent, and that his case has proven for may Americans that the U.S. legal system occasionally executes innocent people based on faulty evidence.

“If they kill Richard today, or if they don’t, the landscape has changed, because it will be an excellent example of how you can kill an innocent man. The American people are waking up. Richard will have helped if he lives or if he dies,” she said.

Glossip’s case has also been influential in other ways, Prejean said.

In a case turned down by the Supreme Court earlier this year, Glossip charged that Oklahoma’s use of the anti-anxiety drug midazolam, the drug used in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014, causes unnecessary pain and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Although the justices ruled against Glossip, citing insufficient evidence, Prejean said the case drew national attention to U.S. prisons’ use of untested execution drugs.

The question of Glossip’s innocence, Prejean said, made the failed Supreme Court case even more pertinent.

A report published by the National Academy of Sciences in April 2014 estimated that more than 4 percent of U.S. death row inmates are innocent. The report, based exoneration data, showed that prisoners are 10 times as likely to be exonerated while on death row than a lesser sentence. Death penalty opponents say the report shows that capital offense cases are more emotionally driven and less balanced than others.

For his part, Glossip said that whether he lives or dies, he hoped that his case would spur change in the U.S. justice system.

“If the worst happens, I want my death not to have been in vain,” Glossip wrote in a statement read on the television program Dr. Phil on Aug. 31.

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