Two weeks after Oklahoma carried out its first lethal injection of 2023, the new attorney general interrupted the state’s killing spree, upending its execution calendar and launching an independent investigation into the case of Richard Glossip, who was next in line to die. In a motion filed before the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals last week, Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who witnessed the execution of Scott Eizember on January 12, wrote that “a reassessment of the current execution schedule is necessary to maintain confidence in the system.” Although he praised the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for its “work ethic, professionalism, and concern for the victims’ families,” it had become clear, he wrote, “that the current pace of executions is unsustainable in the long run, as it is unduly burdening the DOC and its personnel.”
On Tuesday, the court granted the motion, rescheduling seven executions and postponing 13 additional dates well into the future. Two days later, Drummond announced that he had appointed an independent prosecutor to reinvestigate Glossip’s case. For Glossip’s longtime attorney Don Knight, who has fought for years to save his client’s life, it was a banner week in a case that has become synonymous with the state’s dysfunctional death penalty system. “From the beginning of our work on this case, all we have asked for is a fair review of all the evidence,” Knight said in a statement. “The new evidence we have uncovered since 2015 shows conclusively … that no reasonable juror who viewed all the evidence would find Mr. Glossip guilty of murder for hire. We are confident that this new investigation will reach the same conclusion. Richard Glossip is innocent of this crime.”
Glossip, who was scheduled for execution on February 16, had already filled out the paperwork for witnesses and burial plans when news of the investigation arrived — a ritual he has undertaken multiple times. He is now set to die on May 18. Amid mounting pressure from Oklahoma lawmakers, however, it seems vanishingly unlikely that this new execution date — his ninth so far — will come to pass.
Drummond, who was sworn in on January 9, inherited Oklahoma’s execution spree from his predecessor, John O’Connor, who made executions a top priority during his short stint in office. Appointed in the summer of 2021 to finish the term of Michael Hunter, who was tasked with overhauling the state’s execution protocol before resigning amid a personal scandal, O’Connor immediately requested a slew of death warrants even as a lawsuit over the state’s new lethal injection protocol was pending in federal court. After the court upheld the protocol last June — despite evidence that the condemned have suffered when executed using the contested set of drugs — the state moved to set 25 execution dates.
Drummond’s intervention so soon after taking office caught many Oklahomans by surprise, including activists, attorneys, and people on death row. The previous schedule had set a pace of roughly one execution per month, which would have eliminated half the state’s condemned population within two years. The new schedule puts 60 days between each execution, reducing the number of remaining executions this year from 10 to four. Yet for those whose cases have not drawn the same public attention as Glossip’s, the order provides little more than temporary relief. One man whose execution will be postponed said that his date was not close enough to cause a lot of stress, although he had already begun to prepare psychologically for his execution. “There was the ‘ticking off of last things’ and that was a bummer — last World Series, last Thanksgiving, stuff like that,” he wrote. “Now, I have to begin anew.”
Anti-death penalty activists in New York City hold a vigil for Oklahoma death row prisoner Julius Jones on Nov. 18, 2021.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
The news in Oklahoma came as other active death penalty states announced that they would halt executions altogether to reevaluate their killing protocols. In Tennessee, where the execution of Oscar Smith was called off at the last minute in April, an investigation recently revealed that prison officials had run afoul of their own protocol since executions resumed in the state in 2018. In Arizona, whose record of botched executions carried into 2022, newly elected Gov. Katie Hobbs announced plans to appoint a death penalty independent review commissioner “to review and provide transparency” into the state’s protocols. Arizona’s new attorney general vowed not to seek any execution dates while the review was underway.
Yet Oklahoma’s own recent history shows how tenuous and short-lived such de facto moratoriums can be. The state’s death chamber was inactive for six years following a series of disastrous executions that made national headlines. In 2015, Oklahoma nearly executed Glossip using the wrong drug, reversing course at the last minute and sparking a series of investigations that uncovered myriad problems with the way the state carried out capital punishment. In 2017, a bipartisan commission issued a nearly 300-page report critiquing every aspect of the state’s system. The report’s co-chairs expressed hope that the study would “foster an informed discussion among all Oklahomans about whether the death penalty in our state can be implemented in a way that eliminates the unacceptable risk of executing the innocent, as well as the unacceptable risks of inconsistent, discriminatory, and inhumane application of the death penalty.”
Yet virtually nothing changed. In the years following the review, the state remained mired in controversy as it moved to resume executions. John Grant, the first man put to death, convulsed and vomited on the gurney during his 2021 execution. Officials accused witnesses of exaggerating what they saw. Later that year, Julius Jones, a Black man sentenced to die by a nearly all-white jury compromised by racial bias, came within hours of execution despite an activist movement proclaiming his innocence. Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted his sentence to life. In other cases, issues like untreated mental illness, severe childhood trauma, and questionable convictions have been brushed aside in order to put people to death.
Nevertheless, due largely to Glossip’s case, even staunch supporters of the death penalty have begun to question Oklahoma’s system. Last fall, after the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals refused to consider new evidence pointing to Glossip’s innocence — including exculpatory evidence destroyed by police between his first and second trials — state Rep. Kevin McDugle wrote a scathing op-ed in The Oklahoman, warning that such a system posed a threat to anyone who might find themselves wrongfully accused. “Oklahoma has a sad history of pushing cases through the full judicial process and declaring them final and over, only to have many convicted men later exonerated when DNA evidence proved their innocence,” he wrote. “Undeniably, this system has failed before; we cannot insist everything is fine just because we went through the process. Who will take responsibility for this travesty?”
“Who will take responsibility for this travesty?”
Indeed, while the same court granted the attorney general’s request to slow down executions, such willingness to intervene in carrying out the death penalty is an exception for the judges, not the rule. Judge Gary Lumpkin made clear that he was reluctant to go along with the order, grousing in a concurrence that the “major complaint in the application of the death penalty is the amount of time it takes to complete the carrying out of the sentence to provide finality for crime victims and their families.” Now the DOC was asking for even more time with “no more than a claim of inconvenience.”
The death penalty’s application has always hinged more on political will than a meaningful approach to crime, subject to the whims and priorities of whoever is in power at a given time. It’s no coincidence that the slowdown in executions comes not only at the hands of a new attorney general, but also at the behest of newly appointed Department of Corrections Director Steven Harpe, who worked as an executive for the governor’s mortgage company before joining his administration — and has no background in prisons or punishment. Nor is it any secret that executions take a toll on those who are tasked with carrying them out.
For activists who have fought the relentless tide of executions since 2021, the impact on prison personnel has become abundantly clear during visits to the state penitentiary in McAlester. Sue Hosch, the Oklahoma coordinator of Death Penalty Action, who regularly visits and corresponds with men on death row, said that guards who work at the prison are among the unseen individuals who are adversely impacted every time a human being is put to death. The men on death row “have a system of people they’re involved with — family, friends, loved ones, both inside and outside the prison,” Hosch said. “It hurts to see these people executed one after another like they’re meaningless people in the world, because they’re not.”
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