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Are Last-Minute Death Penalty Delays Cruel And Unusual Punishment?

Anti-death penalty activists, including members of and other advocay groups, rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in a final attempt to prevent the execution of Oklahoma inmate Richard Glossip on Sept. 29.
Larry French
Getty Images
Anti-death penalty activists, including members of and other advocay groups, rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in a final attempt to prevent the execution of Oklahoma inmate Richard Glossip on Sept. 29.

America's death penalty is under scrutiny after a series of botched executions, drug mix-ups and difficulty acquiring lethal injection drugs. Just last month, President Obama called certain parts of capital punishment "deeply troubling."

Some say long waits and repeated last-minute delays are tantamount to torture.

Friends and family of Richard Glossip gather around a cell phone outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, straining to listen to the death row inmate's voice over a tinny speaker.

Glossip was convicted for hiring another man to kill his boss in 1997. He was scheduled to die by lethal injection in September — but at the last minute, Glossip received a stay of execution.

Glossip didn't know why he wasn't dead yet until a TV reporter told him over the phone — the governor stopped the execution because the state had the wrong drug.

"That's just crazy," Glossip said.

His friends and family listening around the phone agree.

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 because of excessive delays. An appeals court overruled that decision recently on a technicality.

Other states are struggling to acquire execution drugs because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to supply them. Oklahoma, Montana, Arkansas and Ohio have all put executions on hold in the last month.

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 says.

"Going through this repeatedly definitely has a tremendous emotional, psychological toll on an individual," John Blume, a Cornell law professor, says.

Blume used to represent death row inmates. He's seen them go through the process of preparing to die and says that eleventh hour delays aren't always welcome.

"Sometimes it's a relief, and sometimes the people almost feel like, well, I don't want to go through this again because it was so hard. And then the process begins again," Blume says.

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

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

"It's very hard, I think, 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," he says.

Robert Dunham with the Death Penalty Information Center thinks repeated last-minute stays are torture. Still, he doesn't think the courts will ever do anything about it.

"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 says.

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.

Copyright 2015 KGOU

Corrected: November 22, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier Web version of this story incorrectly said that a federal appeals court had heard arguments in August but not yet ruled on the constitutionality of California's death penalty. In fact, the court recently overruled the previous decision on a technicality.
Jacob spearheads KRCU’s local news effort. His reporting has been heard on NPR’ Morning Edition and All Things Considered, PRI’s The World, and Harvest Public Media. In addition to reporting, Jacob directs KRCU’s team of student reporters and producers.
Jacob McCleland
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.