U.S. Supreme Court halts execution of Oklahoma inmate Glossip

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday halted the scheduled execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip, whose cause drew support from the state’s Republican attorney general after an investigation shed new light on evidence relating to the 1997 murder Glossip was convicted of commissioning.

The justices acted after a divided Oklahoma state panel on April 26 voted against recommending clemency for Glossip, 60, who was scheduled to be executed on May 18 for his role in the murder of motel owner Barry Van Treese.

The justices agreed to halt the execution while they consider whether to take up Glossip’s two pending petitions for appeal, which challenge his conviction on various grounds.

Don Knight, an attorney for Glossip, welcomed the court’s action.

“We are very grateful to the U.S. Supreme Court for doing the right thing in stopping Richard Glossip’s unlawful execution,” Knight said. “There is nothing more harrowing than the thought of executing a man who the state now admits has never received a fair trial. Thankfully, for the time being, Mr. Glossip is out of peril.”

In an unusual twist in a death penalty case, Glossip on April 6 gained backing from Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who said the findings of an independent counsel he tapped to examine the case had “cast doubt on the conviction.” 

“After thorough and serious deliberation, I have concluded that I cannot stand behind the murder conviction and death sentence of Richard Glossip,” Drummond said in a statement announcing he would file a motion that day urging an Oklahoma appeals court to vacate the conviction and return the case to the federal district court.

“This is not to say I believe he is innocent. However, it is critical that Oklahomans have absolute faith that the death penalty is administered fairly and with certainty,” Drummond added.

A separate independent investigation conducted last year by the law firm Reed Smith at the request of Oklahoma lawmakers also raised serious concerns about Glossip’s case and conviction.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on April 20 upheld Glossip’s murder conviction, rebuffing Drummond’s request. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on April 26 declined to recommend clemency when the panel deadlocked 2-2.

Glossip’s conviction stemmed from the 1997 murder of Van Treese, the owner of a Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by maintenance worker Justin Sneed. Sneed confessed to carrying out the killing and said Glossip, a manager at the motel, had hired him to do it.

Glossip was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1998. After an appeals court threw out that conviction, he was found guilty again in 2004.

Drummond, in his court filing, said Glossip’s conviction should be vacated due to problems with evidence in the case, including that Sneed misled the jury about his psychiatric condition at the time of the murder.

Glossip has pending petitions for appeal before the Supreme Court challenging his conviction on grounds including that prosecutors failed to hand over evidence about Sneed to Glossip’s defense counsel.

The Supreme Court in 2015 ruled against a bid by Glossip and two other death row inmates to challenge Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, with the justices ruling 5-4 that the state’s execution method did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in Friday’s decision by the court.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)