Richard Glossip was supposed to be dead by now. A few hours before his scheduled execution on September 16, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issue a two-week stay. HIs death is now scheduled for September 30 while his attorneys attempt to save his life.

Glossip, a hotel manager, was convicted and sentenced to death for hiring another man to kill Glossip's boss, hotel owner Barry van Treese. Glossip admitted to not telling the police as soon as he learned about the murder, but there was no evidence linking Glossip to the murder itself. The only "evidence" came from Justin Sneed, the man who actually killed Van Treese. Sneed, whose story changed multiple times, testified against Glossip in exchange for a life sentence instead of death.

  Lethal Injection Room at San Quentin, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Lethal Injection Room at San Quentin, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

I've long been a theoretical supporter of the death penalty. It seemed like a good idea, even Biblical, but I didn't think much about it--how people were actually convicted and how they were actually executed. Reading two John Grisham books forced me to think about the death penalty more. The Confession (2010) is a fictional account of a young man convicted of a murder he did not commit and facing execution in Texas. The Innocent Man (2006) is the true story of Ron Williamson, a former baseball player who was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. A former acquaintance of Ron, Dennis Fritz, was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Both men were exonerated after 12 years in prison. I highly recommend both of these books.

Some of those who argue most strongly for the death penalty don't want to be ultimately responsible for it. The police pass the evidence to the prosecutor, the prosecutor presents the case to the judge and jury, the jury's decision is reviewed by the appeals courts, the governor expresses faith in the system, the prison wardens say they are following orders, and the actual executioners are hidden from public view, using chemicals obtained surreptitiously from a mysterious source.

Even if we end the death penalty, that does not solve the issue of innocent people being convicted. Is locking an innocent person away for life any better than killing him? We need to make sure that our "justice system" actually pursues justice. I am a legal layman, but I see a few things that need to change immediately.

  1. Police interrogators should not be able to lie with impunity. They should not be able to pressure a suspect to confess by claiming to have (non-existent) evidence, witnesses, or confessions from other people. Public officials--police, prosecutors, and judges--should be held to the highest possible standard; they should tell the truth and nothing but the truth from the time a suspect is picked up until the end of any resulting trial.
  2. The jury should automatically see or hear all unbiased evidence that sheds light on the case, especially if it suggests reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt. This would include recordings of police interrogations. The defendant should not have to depend on his attorneys to introduce this evidence, because attorneys make mistakes. Purported evidence that is not reliable should be excluded as evidence of guilt, such as the hair sample analysis that helped to convict Williamson and Fritz.
  3. Testimony from jail house snitches may be valuable in confirming someone's innocence, but it should not be relied on to convict someone--another problem in the Williamson and Fritz cases.

I am sympathetic to those who advocate for a Consistent Life ethic, arguing that that we should oppose all forms of killing--abortion, euthanasia, execution, and war. But I'm still not sure what to do with incorrigible violent offenders. I have two tangential personal connections to the death penalty, one against and one for.

In 1998 the Tennessee state senator in my district was killed by his political opponent soon before the election. The senator's family (I know relatives of his wife) did not want prosecutors to seek the death penalty. The convicted murderer was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2013. Also, a distant cousin of mine was murdered in 1991. The man convicted of this and several other killings was executed in 2009. My cousin's mother witnessed the execution.

The legislature of Nebraska this year voted to abolish the death penalty. If we are going to keep the death penalty, it must be implemented fairly and impartially. That is not the case currently in the United States. The Innocence Project details the extent of the problems and highlights the dozens of people who have been released from death row in recent years after wrongful convictions.

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