The Supreme Court put the execution of Richard Glossip on hold on Friday afternoon to give the justices time to consider the Oklahoma man’s appeals. Glossip was scheduled to be executed on May 18. The court’s brief unsigned order came four days after Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond filed a highly unusual brief supporting Glossip’s request to stay his execution. Drummond explained that state officials now believe that Glossip’s conviction should not stand and that it would be “unthinkable” to allow his execution to go forward – but that the Oklahoma courts nonetheless refused to block the execution.
Glossip was sentenced to die for the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese, who owned the Oklahoma City motel where Glossip worked as a manager. Justin Sneed, a handyman at the motel, told jurors that Glossip paid him $10,000 to kill Van Treese. Sneed’s testimony was the only evidence implicating Glossip; in exchange, prosecutors assured Sneed that he would not be sentenced to death.
In March of this year, Glossip filed a new petition for post-conviction relief, seeking to set aside his conviction and sentence. He pointed to new information – primarily notes from prosecutors – that he had received for the first time in January, indicating that Sneed had testified falsely about whether he had seen a psychiatrist. In fact, Sneed had been treated by a prison psychiatrist for bipolar disorder and had been prescribed lithium.
On April 3, an independent counsel appointed by Drummond to review Glossip’s case urged the state to vacate his conviction. Rex Duncan, a former district attorney in Oklahoma, wrote that he believed that “Glossip was deprived of a fair trial in which the State can have confidence in the process and result.” There were so many errors in that process, Duncan stressed, both at trial and on appeal, that a new trial was necessary.
In the wake of Duncan’s report, Drummond joined Glossip in asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, to set aside Glossip’s conviction, but that court rejected the request on April 20. Less than a week later, by a vote of 2-2, the state’s Pardon and Parole Board turned down Glossip’s request for clemency, which the attorney general – apparently for the first time in the state’s history – had also supported.
Glossip came to the Supreme Court last week, asking the justices to put his execution on hold to give them more time to consider his appeals.
In an 11-page filing on May, Drummond – joined on the brief by Paul Clement, who served as the U.S. solicitor general during the George W. Bush administration – noted that he “does not agree with everything Glossip has said in this case or in this Court and [he] continues to oppose” an earlier petition for review, filed in January. But, Drummond continued, he was “troubled” by the state’s failure to correct Sneed’s false testimony about whether he had seen a psychiatrist. Because he had “reached the difficult conclusion that the conviction of Glossip was obtained with the benefit of material misstatements to the jury by the State’s key witness,” Drummond explained, he planned to agree with Glossip that the court should review the most recent ruling by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, rejecting Glossip’s request to set aside his sentence.
Friday’s order was not the first time that the Supreme Court has agreed to put Glossip’s execution on hold. In 2015, the court blocked his execution so that it could consider a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol. In that case, Glossip v. Gross, the court eventually rejected the challenge by a vote of 5-4.
Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in Friday’s order, presumably because he was part of the panel that ruled on Glossip’s lethal-injection challenge while he was still a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.