Citing Drug Concerns, Oklahoma Governor Delays Execution

by | October 1, 2015

By Graham Lee Brewer

The execution of convicted murderer Richard Glossip has been stayed by Gov. Mary Fallin, who said in a news release the state received a drug for his execution it is not authorized to use.

Glossip's 3 p.m. Wednesday execution already had been postponed momentarily as the Oklahoma Department of Corrections waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to make a decision on Glossip's final appeal. At 4 p.m., state Corrections Department officials announced the execution would be stayed for 37 days. It would mark the third time Glossip has come within hours of execution before receiving a stay.

"That's just crazy," Glossip, 52, said on speaker phone as a supporter held the phone up for the media outside the prison walls.

Glossip was incredulous on the phone, just moments after the stay was issued. He said he was still trying to piece together exactly what happened and why he was still alive.

"I'm happy that I get 37 more days," he continued. "It gives my attorneys time to think of something. That's great."

Fallin issued an executive order Wednesday to halt the execution, noting the state Corrections Department was going to use a drug not in its lethal injection protocol.

"This stay is ordered due to the Department of Corrections having received potassium acetate as drug number three for the three-drug protocol," Fallin wrote in an executive order, referencing the state's three-drug lethal cocktail.

In the news release, she expressed concern for the family of victim Barry Van Treese. "My sincerest sympathies go out to the Van Treese family, who has waited so long to see justice done," Fallin said.

In the news release, Fallin said last-minute questions were raised about the drug, and she issued the stay after consulting with the Oklahoma attorney general's office and the Corrections Department.

Potassium acetate is not one of the drugs authorized for use in executions in the state's lethal injection protocol.

Alex Weintz, the governor's spokesman, said potassium acetate is virtually identical to potassium chloride, which is in the protocol, but the governor's office granted the stay "out of an abundance of caution."

According to the National Institutes of Health, which maintains an online catalog of drugs, potassium acetate "is the acetate salt form of potassium, an essential macro-mineral." Possible side effects of potassium acetate ingestion can include "potassium intoxication," which can lead to cardiac arrest, heart block, hypertension and other potentially fatal maladies, the agency's website states.

'Extremely frustrating'

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, Aaron Cooper, said Attorney General Scott Pruitt was not happy about the development.

"It is unclear why, and extremely frustrating to the attorney general, that the Department of Corrections did not have the correct drugs to carry out the execution," he wrote.

Addressing the media after the stay was issued, Corrections Director Robert Patton said the stay will give the department time to make a decision on how to move forward. He declined to answer questions.

Spokeswoman Terri Watkins said she was unable to offer insight on how the mix-up with the drugs happened or what it means for next week's execution of Benjamin Robert Cole. Cole is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Oct. 7.

Standing outside the prison walls after the stay, Dale Baich, a federal public defender representing Glossip, said the Corrections Department notified him in August they would be using potassium chloride for the execution. He called the lack of transparency surrounding lethal injections in Oklahoma  troubling.

"We were not advised that this drug was substituted in," he said. "I would have expected the attorney general's office or the Department of Corrections to inform counsel for the plaintiffs in this case, but that did not happen."

"We don't know what's going on, and we will make every effort to find out," he said.

Glossip was convicted in 2004 in the 1997 murder of Van Treese at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City. Glossip had received a second trial after it was ruled he had ineffective counsel. Glossip has always maintained his innocence. Justin Sneed, the motel's maintenance man, received a sentence of life without parole for testifying that Glossip hired him for the killing. Sneed confessed to bludgeoning Van Treese with a baseball bat.

Glossip's claims of innocence have gained international attention as several celebrities, including actress Susan Sarandon, former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, business mogul Richard Branson, and Pope Francis, have called for Fallin to stay his execution.

Protests

The stay from the governor came after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the execution.

About 2 p.m., a small group of congregants from Church of the Madalene in Tulsa gathered in a designated protest area just outside the prison gates.

The Rev. Bryan Brooks, the church's pastor, said the group had come to pray for Glossip, Van Treese and the corrections officers tasked with carrying out the sentence. Brooks and five other church members read prayers for about an hour before the execution was scheduled to begin.

Brooks, a Roman Catholic priest, said the state has a responsibility to protect people from violent offenders but should use the death penalty "only in the rarest of circumstances."

Before the stay was announced, Glossip's friends and relatives gathered on the street in front of the prison. Some relatives wept openly, and one shouted at police officers across the street. Attorney Don Knight, a member of Glossip's legal team, met with Glossip's family and friends and thanked the group for their support.

"There's nothing more that we can do," Knight said.

Knight said Glossip's last wish was that the world would know he was innocent. "Everyone knows," he said. "The world knows that Richard Glossip is innocent."

Just minutes after they were sobbing and consoling each other, several of Glossip's relatives disappeared for a moment and reappeared with balloons, cheering at the news that a stay had been ordered. The group gathered with members of Church of the Madalene for a prayer, then released the balloons into the afternoon sky.

Mike Campbell, Glossip's nephew, described the day as "a roller coaster." He said he didn't expect good news to come from Fallin's office.

"I feel like we just won the Super Bowl," Campbell said. "I still believe God's going to set him free."

Sister Helen Prejean, an anti-death penalty activist who has called for Glossip's exoneration, said the problem proves that the Department of Corrections can't be trusted to carry out executions.

"It's a broken system," she said. "It's not working."

(c)2015 The Oklahoman