Are Last-Minute Death Penalty Delays Cruel And Unusual Punishment?

Nov 23, 2015
Originally published on November 23, 2015 6:57 pm

America's death penalty is under scrutiny after a series of botched executions, drug mix-ups and difficulty acquiring lethal injection drugs. Just last month, President Obama called certain parts of capital punishment "deeply troubling."

Some say long waits and repeated last-minute delays are tantamount to torture.

Friends and family of Richard Glossip gather around a cell phone outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, straining to listen to the death row inmate's voice over a tinny speaker.

Glossip was convicted for hiring another man to kill his boss in 1997. He was scheduled to die by lethal injection in September — but at the last minute, Glossip received a stay of execution.

Glossip didn't know why he wasn't dead yet until a TV reporter told him over the phone — the governor stopped the execution because the state had the wrong drug.

"That's just crazy," Glossip said.

His friends and family listening around the phone agree.

Twice in September, Richard Glossip ate his last meal and prepared himself for the execution chamber. Both times, his execution was stopped hours before he was supposed to die. The U.S. Supreme Court stopped a previous execution in January.

Last year, a federal judge ruled California's death penalty as unconstitutional, partially because of excessive delays. An appeals court overruled that decision recently on a technicality.

Other states are struggling to acquire execution drugs because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply them. Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas and Ohio have all put executions on hold in the last month.

Standing outside the prison, Glossip's attorney Don Knight says repeatedly pulling his client back from the cusp of death at the last minute is cruel and unusual punishment.

"When you see torture, is it torture? It looks like torture. I would wish that they would stop torturing Mr. Glossip. I wish they would stop trying to kill Mr. Glossip," Knight says.

"Going through this repeatedly definitely has a tremendous emotional, psychological toll on an individual," John Blume, a Cornell law professor, says.

Blume used to represent death row inmates. He's seen them go through the process of preparing to die and says that eleventh hour delays aren't always welcome.

"Sometimes it's a relief, and sometimes the people almost feel like, well, I don't want to go through this again because it was so hard. And then the process begins again," Blume says.

Capital punishment advocates blame the lengthy delays on defense attorneys, who inundate the court system with appeals.

And Blume says the long wait times can also be tough on relatives of the victim.

"It's very hard, I think, on the surviving victim's family members who may or may not necessarily support the execution but believe the case is finally drawing to a close," he says.

Robert Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center thinks repeated last-minute stays are torture. Still, he doesn't think the courts will ever do anything about it.

"When a stay of execution is the product of court proceedings, those are necessary proceedings. So yes, it is cruel but it's not unnecessarily cruel in the eyes of the courts," Dunham says.

Richard Glossip, the Oklahoma death row inmate, continues to maintain his innocence. Now he has several more months to make his case while the state investigates the drug mix-up that inadvertently spared his life.

Copyright 2015 KGOU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kgou.org.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The death penalty here in the U.S. has been under scrutiny after a series of botched executions, drug mix-ups and difficulty acquiring lethal injection drugs. As a result, inmates facing execution have experienced long waits or repeated last-minute delays. And some say that is the same as torture. Jacob McCleland of member station KGOU in Norman, Okla., reports.

JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: Friends and family of Richard Glossip gather around a cellphone outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, straining to listen to the death row inmate's voice over a tinny speaker.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: We love you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think I lost him.

DON KNIGHT: Richard?

RICHARD GLOSSIP: Yeah.

KNIGHT: You're still there, right?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Your call cannot be completed at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh.

KNIGHT: (Laughter).

MCCLELAND: Glossip was convicted for hiring another man to kill his boss in 1997. He was scheduled to die by lethal injection that day in September. At the last minute, Glossip received a stay of execution.

KNIGHT: I assume he will try and call again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

KNIGHT: There he is.

MCCLELAND: Glossip didn't know why he wasn't dead yet until a TV reporter told him over the phone. The governor stopped the execution because the state had the wrong drug.

GLOSSIP: That's just crazy.

KNIGHT: Yes, it is, Richard.

MCCLELAND: Twice in September, Richard Glossip ate what was supposed to be his last meal and prepared himself for the execution chamber. Both times, his execution was stopped hours before he was supposed to die. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped yet another previously scheduled execution. Across the country, states are struggling to acquire execution drugs because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply them. Last month, Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas and Ohio each put executions on hold. And last year, a federal judge ruled California's death penalty as unconstitutional, partially due to excessive delays. An appeals court overruled that decision recently on a technicality. Standing outside the prison, Glossip's attorney, Don Knight, says repeatedly pulling his client back from the cusp of death at the last minute is cruel and unusual punishment.

KNIGHT: I don't know. I mean, (laughter) do you see torture? Is it torture? It looks like torture. So I would wish that they would stop torturing Mr. Glossip, you know? I wish they would stop trying to kill Mr. Glossip.

JOHN BLUME: Going through this repeatedly definitely has a tremendous emotional, psychological toll on an individual.

MCCLELAND: Cornell law professor John Blume used to represent death row inmates. He's seen them go through the process of preparing to die. Eleventh hour delays aren't always welcome.

BLUME: Sometimes it's a relief. Sometimes the people almost feel like, well, you know, I don't want to have to go through this again because it was so hard. And then, you know, the process begins again.

MCCLELAND: Capital punishment advocates blame the lengthy delays on defense attorneys who inundate the court system with appeals. And John Blume says the long wait times can be tough on relatives of the victims.

BLUME: It's also very hard, I think, on the victim's - surviving victim's family members who, you know, may or may not necessarily support the execution but believe the case is finally drawing to a close.

MCCLELAND: Robert Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center thinks repeated last-minute stays are torture. Still, he doesn't think the courts will do anything about that.

ROBERT DUNHAM: When a stay of execution is the product of court proceedings, those are necessary proceedings. So, yes, it is cruel. But it's not unnecessarily cruel in the eyes of the courts.

MCCLELAND: Richard Glossip, the Oklahoma death row inmate, continues to maintain his innocence. Now he has several more months to make his case while the state investigates the drug mix-up that inadvertently spared his life. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland in Norman, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.