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Oklahoma Governor Halts Richard Glossip Execution at Last Minute as Death Penalty Debate Rages On

Oklahoma's governor granted a last-minute stay of execution on Wednesday to an inmate convicted of hiring a hit man, saying the state needed time to determine if one of three drugs it planned to use complies with its court-approved procedures.
Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip is shown in this Oklahoma Department of Corrections photo. REUTERS/Oklahoma Department of Corrections/Handout

Oklahoma's governor granted a last-minute stay of execution on Wednesday to an inmate convicted of hiring a hit man, saying the state needed time to determine if one of three drugs it planned to use complies with its court-approved procedures.

Lawyers for Richard Glossip, 52, had argued for a stay, saying they had evidence pointing to his innocence, but they were turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court minutes before the scheduled start of the execution at 3 p.m. CDT.

Republican Governor Mary Fallin ordered the stay, saying the state had received potassium acetate for use in its three-drug protocol instead of the court-approved potassium chloride.

Her stay came about an hour after the scheduled start of the execution, which was delayed by the Supreme Court decision.

The governor delayed Glossip's execution until Nov. 6 to determine if potassium acetate would meet court requirements or if Oklahoma would have to acquire potassium chloride.

Glossip, convicted of hiring a hit man to murder a motel owner, would have been the second inmate put to death on Wednesday in the United States after Georgia executed its first woman in seven decades, Kelly Gissendaner, in the early morning.

While three more inmates are scheduled to be executed next week in the United States, the number of executions has declined in recent years. The 35 executions carried out in 2014 were the lowest total in two decades.

Glossip was convicted of arranging the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese, the owner of an Oklahoma City motel that Glossip was managing.

His lawyers said no physical evidence tied Glossip to the crime and he was convicted largely on the testimony of Justin Sneed, then 19, who said Glossip hired him to carry out the killing. Sneed received a life sentence.

The lawyers presented new statements from jailhouse informants who said Sneed confessed to setting up Glossip so that he could avoid a death sentence.

Dale Baich, one of Glossip's attorneys, said Oklahoma realized with only moments to spare that it was not "capable of competently executing" Glossip.

"Oklahoma has had months to prepare for this execution, and today's events only highlight how more transparency and public oversight in executions is sorely needed," Baich said in a statement.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday denied a request to halt the execution, saying in a majority decision it found the evidence was neither new nor compelling enough to merit a postponement.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court, only Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have granted Glossip a stay of execution.

Pope Francis, an outspoken death penalty opponent, had asked Fallin to commute Glossip's death sentence. She had declined to intervene and on Wednesday apologized to the Van Treese family for issuing the stay of execution.

An Oklahoma appeals court had thrown out a previous conviction, saying evidence against Glossip was "extremely weak." A jury in 2004 again found him guilty and upheld the death sentence.

Glossip's execution would have been the first in Oklahoma since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June the use of midazolam, a sedative in the lethal injection procedure, did not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Lawyers for Glossip and other Oklahoma death-row inmates had challenged midazolam, saying it could cause undue suffering, and was therefore unsuitable for executions, because it could not achieve the level of unconsciousness required for surgery.