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Delays, Drug Mix-Ups Put Death Penalty Under Scrutiny

Attorney Don Knight on the phone with Richard Glossip outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Jacob McCleland
Attorney Don Knight on the phone with Richard Glossip outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

Friends and family of Richard Glossip gather around a cell phone outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester on September 30, straining to listen to the death row inmate’s voice over a tinny speaker. As soon as the connection is made, Glossip is cut off by an automated voice.

“Your call cannot be connected at this time…”


The crowd lets out a disappointed groan.

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, and received a stay of execution just hours before he was scheduled to die.

When Glossip finally spoke by phone with his supporters outside the prison, he didn’t know why he wasn’t dead yet. A TV reporter, Phil Cross at KOKH, told him over the phone that the governor stopped the execution because the state had the wrong drug.

After a long pause, Glossip said, “That’s just crazy.”

America’s death penalty is under scrutiny after a series of botched executions, drug mix-ups, and difficulty acquiring lethal injection drugs. On October 23, President Obama called certain parts of capital punishment “deeply troubling.” Now, some say long waits and repeated last-minute delays are tantamount to torture.

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 due to excessive delays. An appeals court heard arguments on the case in August, and has not yet issued a ruling. Other states are struggling to acquire execution drugs because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply them. In the last month, Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas and Ohio have put executions on hold.

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 said.


Cornell law professor John Blume used to represent death row inmates, and now leads the Cornell Death Penalty Project. He has seen the condemned go through the process of preparing to die. Eleventh-hour delays are not always welcome.

“Going through this repeatedly definitely has a tremendous emotional, psychological toll on an individual,” Blume said. “It’s sometimes a relief, and sometimes the people are like, I don’t want to go through this again because it’s so hard. And then the process begins again.”


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

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

“I think it’s very hard 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,” Blume said.


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.

“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 said.


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.

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Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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