October 26, 2015

DAVIES | The Case Against the Death Penalty

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Richard Glossip was scheduled to die at 3 p.m. on Sept. 30, 2015. After that hour passed without event, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution, delaying Glossip’s execution until the Nov. 6. For the fourth time since October 2014, the state of Oklahoma stayed Richard Glossip’s execution.

On Jan. 7, 1997, Barry Van Treese, owner of the Oklahoma City Best Budget Inn, was found beaten to death inside his motel. Richard Glossip, the manager of the Best Budget Inn, was convicted of hiring Justin Sneed, a motel maintenance worker, to kill his boss. On June 18, 1998, Sneed was sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison for killing Van Treese. On Aug. 14, 1998, Glossip was sentenced to death on the charge of murder-for-hire.

Despite two trials and two convictions, there exists serious doubt about Glossip’s guilt. Sneed had strong incentives to implicate Glossip. Transcripts suggest that officers fed him the theory that Glossip had orchestrated the killing, promising a better outcome for Sneed if he testified against Glossip. Sneed was reputedly “terrified of the death penalty,” and framing Glossip allowed him to stay off death row. An inmate in Sneed’s prison even reported that while talking on a prison phone, Sneed laughed about framing Glossip.

Regardless of Sneed’s honesty, under Oklahoma law the testimony of an accomplice is not sufficient basis to sentence to death someone convicted of murder-for-hire. The killer’s claims must be corroborated by physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime. Such a provision is necessary to guard against wrongful implication, of which many accuse Justin Sneed. Yet Richard Glossip still received the death sentence despite no physical evidence tying him to the murder.

Execution is irreparable. Such a verdict should not be decided by an interrogator’s theory or a prosecutor’s agenda. There is something viscerally barbaric in the death penalty, be it under the gun or the needle. There is something terrifying in the execution of an innocent man, something from which we should recoil.

Equally ruthless is the agony induced by repeated stays of execution, something Richard Glossip described as “pure torture.” In his Foster v. Florida dissent, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recognised that such “immense mental anxiety [amounted] to a great increase of the offender’s punishment.” The torture of repeated stays forms the basis of an argument, albeit by proxy, against the death penalty as contrary to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Stays are a necessary procedure to guard against executing the innocent — any ‘sensible’ death penalty system must allow for the delaying of execution dates if new evidence is found. Those given life sentences can be released. Those given death sentences cannot. We owe anyone sentenced to death the utmost candour and respect before we irreversibly condemn them.

Alongside this responsibility, we must ensure that the convicted is not punished twice or thrice for their crimes — a retribution both cruel and unusual — through life behind bars and torturous anxiety in addition to the final confiscation of life. While stays and appeals are integral to a just system, extraneous delays are poisonous. On average, California death row inmates wait ten to twelve years for the state to appoint them a post-conviction attorney. Richard Glossip’s latest stay was issued more than an hour after his scheduled execution time. Both of these delays are the fault of the state. Mock execution is alive and well in the land of the free.

Justice and humanity are not synonymous, nor are they mutually exclusive. Striking the balance between a legal system that guards against executing innocent people and one that cuts time spent in line for the needle is an unenviable task. Yet our desire to maintain the death penalty mandates that we do so. How we treat those who have done the worst is the true measure of our society.

I urge you to look into the case of Richard Glossip and the evidence supporting his innocence. Proof beyond reasonable doubt is all the more important when a life is at stake. While Oklahoma has indefinitely delayed three scheduled executions, including Glossip’s, the move has been motivated by concerns over the drugs to be used, not the innocence of the convicted. Let us not mistake it for the reform needed.

We as a society must address the corruption that impels the guilty to testify against the innocent and inures us to the suffering of those on death row. In the words of anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, we must examine “the soil in which this tree produces such terrible fruit.” We call ourselves a civilized society, yet how can we be civilized when our justice system routinely infringes upon our fellow humans’ rights? Are we truly civilized, or just more sophisticated at hiding our base nature?

Alex Davies is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ajd253@cornell.edu. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

3 thoughts on “DAVIES | The Case Against the Death Penalty

  1. I find it ironic that granting stays of execution is viewed as cruel and unusual punishment. But the solution is obvious. Do not grant the stays.

  2. Your argument is not against the death penalty, per se, but against the application of the standard of proof (guilt beyond a reasonable doubt) as it was applied here.

    If Glossip had been sentenced to life without parole his case would have long been forgotten, and the sentence would have become for practical purposes as irrevocable as the death penalty.

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