"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Friday, December 11, 2015

Our year with Richard Glossip

Richard Glossip and Sister Helen Prejean
Richard Glossip and Sister Helen Prejean
This is an account of the campaign to save the life of Richard Glossip. It provides both a timeline of the events over the past year when Richard came close to being executed not once but three times, and also an insight into our work at the Ministry Against the Death Penalty.

In January 2015 Sister Helen received a letter from Richard Glossip. He was on death row in Oklahoma, convicted of the murder for hire of Barry van Treese. The man who committed the actual murder, Justin Sneed, had escaped the death penalty and earned himself a life sentence by claiming that Richard had paid him to do it. There was little other evidence.

Richard had received a stay of execution in October 2014 after the state had severely botched the execution of Clayton Lockett. He told Sister Helen his execution had now been rescheduled for January 29, that he had put her name down as his spiritual advisor and “would she mind” being there as a witness at his execution. Sister Helen phoned Richard and after talking to him agreed to be there for him.

In our work, “being there” does not merely mean being present for an execution. It means standing side by side to fight for life. And that’s what we did with Richard. We found pro bono lawyers for him, raised funds to hire investigators, and began a social media campaign to spotlight the many flaws in his conviction and the likelihood of his innocence of the crime. We talked to representatives of the Vatican to alert them to Richard’s plight. We held media conferences, partnered with the local Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and launched a petition drive in conjunction with Susan Sarandon to raise public awareness and to place pressure on Governor Mary Fallin to grant Richard a stay. Through our media connections and social media campaign we attracted national and international attention, including from Dr. Phil who dedicated an entire TV show to Richard’s case, and from Richard Branson of Virgin, who helped to inform the UK public and who also provided funds for advertisements in Oklahoma newspapers.

Richard Glossip was not executed in January. One day before the scheduled execution, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Richard’s petition on the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol. In a rare move – presumably because of heightened public scrutiny – the State’s Attorney General had joined with Richard’s lawyers in petitioning the Court to hear the appeal.

In the lead up to the Supreme Court hearing, we used social media and Sr. Helen’s speaking engagements to educate people about Richard’s case and the use of lethal injection in executions. We joined forces with MoveOn to maximize the impact of the petition to be delivered to Governor Fallin (eventually over 225,000 signatures) and to coordinate our social media campaigns. We encouraged people to phone the governor, and thousands responded.

Richard Glossip
Richard Glossip
In June the Supreme Court’s decision in Glossip v. Gross came down against Richard. But in a striking dissent, Justice Breyer, with a concurrence from Justice Ginsberg, said it was time the Supreme Court revisited the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole. In a separate dissent, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsberg and Kagan, pointed out the convoluted logic used by the majority in reaching its decision. The majority decision faulted the petitioners for failing to prove the availability of an alternative “less cruel” means for their own executions. As Justice Sotomayor observed: “Simply stated, the ‘Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits the infliction of cruel and unusual punishments.’ The Court today, however, would convert this categorical prohibition into a conditional one. A method of execution that is intolerably painful—even to the point of being the chemical equivalent of burning alive—will, the Court holds, be unconstitutional if, and only if, there is a ‘known and available alternative’ method of execution.”

Following this decision, Oklahoma set September 16 as the third execution date for Richard. MADP continued applying pressure to get Governor Fallin to grant a stay and give Richard’s lawyers more time to find new evidence. When the Governor’s office issued a series of 11 tweets justifying the Governor’s implacable opposition to a stay, we responded with a series of carefully researched answers, tweeted and retweeted between Susan Sarandon’s and Sister Helen’s accounts. This proved to be a particularly effective tactic and essentially closed down any further responses from the Governor. It also seemed to be a turning point in the media coverage in Oklahoma, which went from generally supporting Richard’s execution to raising questions about his guilt.

Cell LL, the isolation cell adjacent to Oklahoma's death chamber
Cell LL, the isolation cell adjacent to Oklahoma's death chamber
On September 16, three hours before the scheduled execution, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued another stay, this one for two weeks, so it could consider issues raised by Richard’s legal team. When it reviewed the case the conservative OCCA unsurprisingly decided against Richard, although it was a tightly split decision with very strong dissents.

And so Richard received a fourth execution date: September 30. By this time he had spent weeks in the death block where the lights are kept on 24 hours a day.

On the night before his execution, from 8pm onwards Richard was denied all visits, isolated in a cold cell, denied music or reading material because it might “upset him”, and left to await his execution. On September 30, the execution hour of 3pm came and went with no word and no execution. Sitting stripped to his underwear, Richard waited. The witnesses, including Sister Helen and family members of the murder victim, also waited. Outside was a media scrum, while online millions of people followed his fate. MADP used Facebook and Twitter to keep people around the world informed, as we had done throughout our involvement with Richard.

Almost an hour after the scheduled execution time, Governor Fallin issued Richard a 37-day stay. The Governor said the stay was being issued because the Department of Corrections had been supplied with potassium acetate instead of the required potassium chloride as the third drug in the triple cocktail.

This official reason for the stay raised many questions. When did the Department discover the drug error? Had it known of the mix up in advance and been planning to proceed with the execution regardless, but baulked because of the public spotlight? How could it not know it had the wrong drug when they had prepared for Richard’s third execution two weeks prior and the execution process is meticulously rehearsed ahead of time?

In the coming days, the news broke that the Oklahoma DOC had used the same wrong drug, potassium acetate, earlier that year when it had executed Charles Warner, but had kept that information secret. It was only through a freedom of information request by a newspaper that the mistake became public. Potassium acetate is used as a preservative and in embalming. Charles Warner, as he was dying, cried out “It feels like acid” and “My body is on fire”.

Oklahoma was forced to request an indefinite stay for Richard and two others awaiting execution on Oklahoma’s death row in order to examine the problems in its execution procedures.

So now, at the end of 2015, Richard remains on death row without a scheduled execution date. The efforts of many have helped to save his life, so far. And while thousands of people have learned more about the injustice and brutality of our system of capital punishment through the campaign about Richard’s case and some new and influential allies have offered their resources to increase the momentum towards abolition, the terrible impact of what is clearly a process of torture have left their marks on Richard.

Source: Source: Death Penalty Discourse, A newsletter by Sister Helen Prejean, Ministry Against the Death Penalty, December 2015

Are we at the tipping point?

Dear friends,

My last letter to you began with the words: "Richard Glossip is scheduled to die at 3pm this Wednesday." I wrote that in September. Today, as I write this to you, Richard is still alive and his execution has been postponed indefinitely, as have all other executions in Oklahoma.

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean 
It was a near thing. They had isolated and stripped Richard, preparing him for his death. The appointed hour of his execution came and went with no word. And then the announcement: a stay from Governor Fallin. The lethal triple cocktail they had prepared for him contained potassium acetate - a chemical used in embalming! - instead of potassium chloride to stop his heart. They had the wrong drug. It was to emerge in the days to come that they had used that same drug in the execution of Charles Warner earlier in the year, Charles Warner who as they pumped the drugs into him cried out "My body is on fire." So Oklahoma, which had been one of the killingest states in recent years, has joined the long list of states with executions indefinitely on hold.

The statistics make it seem like most of the nation participates in executions, with 31 of the states still having capital punishment on the books. But those statistics mask the fact that only a handful of states perform all the executions. Four states have a moratorium; in 17 states executions are on hold because of botched executions or problems obtaining drugs; and of the 31 states where executions are legal, only six states performed executions this year, with Texas executing more than twice as many as any other state.

Even Texas, with its well-oiled machinery of death, seems to be losing heart when it comes to killing its own citizens. Ten last year, thirteen this year. That's down by three-quarters from 2000 when the death machine was seemingly unstoppable. Now, this year, that machine is finally looking stoppable. In many states where executions are nominally legal, the machinery is downright rusty from lack of use.

There are plenty of reasons for this, with exonerations and botched executions gaining more and more national attention. There are also local factors, such as the Michael Morton Act passed by Texas in 2013, that made it mandatory for prosecutors to track and disclose all evidence against a defendant, not just evidence that is "material either to guilt or to punishment" as mandated by the Supreme Court way back in '63. Prosecutors are shying away from the death penalty partly because of the expense but also because there has been heightened scrutiny of how they conduct capital prosecutions.

And so, with executions and death sentences plummeting, a new reluctance from many of our political leaders to embrace a pro-death penalty stance, and with Richard still alive, I look forward to 2016 with eagerness and renewed fire. We are going to end this thing!

From the heart,

PS. I know that many groups put out an appeal for donations at Christmas time. At MADP, we have chosen not to do that. Instead, I want to encourage you to help a cause very dear to my heart: Witness to Innocence. Witness to Innocence provides a support network for death row exonerees. Its members, who between them have survived hundreds of years on death rows for crimes they did not commit, travel the country sharing their stories with legislators, the media and the public. Their voice, as exonerees, is one of the most powerful and persuasive tools in our fight to end the death penalty. I am so grateful for the courageous work they do. Click here to donate.

Source: Death Penalty Discourse, A newsletter by Sister Helen Prejean, Ministry Against the Death Penalty, December 2015

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