Oklahoma court won't stop Glossip execution, Florida makes new death sentences easier
So long as the death penalty exists, we are allowing the state to make biased, error-ridden, life-and-death decisions.
So long as we allow states and the federal government to pursue death sentences and carry out executions, we are allowing the state to make biased, error-ridden, life-and-death decisions. And, yes, at times, the state will get it wrong and the government will kill an innocent person in our name.
I could go down the dark path of our criminal legal system and the many, many ways it has proven itself untrustworthy of killing people. Over time, I have covered many examples of that — and will continue to do so in the future.
Two decisions on Thursday alone are instructive, one in Oklahoma showing judges’ unwillingness to face the error in an existing death sentence and the other in Florida making future erroneous death sentences much more likely.
Oklahoma’s top criminal court ignores Republican AG in Glossip case
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday denied Richard Glossip’s request to vacate his conviction — despite the fact that the state’s Republican attorney general agreed with the request from Glossip’s lawyers.
Attorney General Gentner Drummond, elected last fall, had agreed with Glossip’s lawyers that his conviction — including his death sentence — should not stand.
Glossip currently faces an execution date of May 18. In addition to denying the request to vacate the conviction, the Court of Criminal Appeals — the highest court in the state for criminal matters — denied the joint request for a stay of execution.
None of the five judges — all former prosecutors, Kyle Barry highlighted — dissented from today’s decision. (One judge wrote separately, agreeing with the court’s judgment.)
Judge David Lewis wrote the court’s opinion, dismissing Glossip’s claims in quick succession. An illustrative example comes in response to the key admission from Drummond about the key witness in the case. Lewis wrote:
To justify ignoring the state’s admission, Lewis wrote:
While this reads like a jumble of meaninglessness, this, ultimately, is how a lot of late death penalty claims are addressed.
To translate: “If you could have raised the claim earlier, because you could have found the underlying information earlier, then you can’t bring it now. And, also, even if you brought the claim early enough, if you can’t prove that the information would almost certainly have changed the outcome, we’re still going to allow the state to execute you.”
This standard completely ignores the insufficient (and sometimes bad) legal help that people accused of even capital crimes often have early on in their cases — and how it is even more difficult for those people to get the level of legal help necessary post-conviction to find the information necessary to bring claims in a timely manner.
Here, though, many people, including many Republicans, agree that Glossip’s trial was a bad one — including the Republican attorney general. Glossip has maintained his innocence. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has granted Glossip multiple reprieves of execution.
As Drummond wrote in his filing, his review of all available material, including a new independent counsel’s review of the case, led him to the conclusion that “Glossip’s trial was unfair and unreliable.”
This should be an obvious case to pull back and, at the very least, not kill the man.
Despite that, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied the request, with Lewis writing for the court that “we have found no legal or factual ground which would require relief in this case.”
Shortly after the decision, one of Glossip’s lawyers, Don Knight, said in a statement that the lawyers would be seeking U.S. Supreme Court review:
Since the State now agrees that the only witness to allege that Mr. Glossip was involved in this crime cannot be believed, it is unconscionable for the court to attempt to force the State to move forward with his execution. We cannot permit this longstanding injustice to go unchallenged and will be filing for review of this manifestly unjust ruling in the United States Supreme Court. We ask all Oklahomans who believe in justice to stand with Mr. Glossip, and the State of Oklahoma, to stop this wrongful judicial execution, and grant Mr. Glossip the new trial he so rightly deserves.
Drummond, while not declaring his next steps, also issued a strong statement:
Law Dork will monitor future developments.
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DeSantis makes it easier to sentence someone to death
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, on Thursday signed into law legislation that will allow non-unanimous juries to recommend death sentences.
Capital trials are split between guilt and sentencing phases. If a jury unanimously convicts a person of murder in the guilt phase, the trial moves to the sentencing phase. Within that phase, there are two votes under Florida law.
Under the new Florida law, the first vote still requires unanimity. The jury must unanimously find that an aggravating factor exists — this is part of the “narrowing” required by the U.S. Supreme Court to, allegedly, ensure that only the worst offenses are subject to the death penalty. Since the Supreme Court made that clear, however, states have nonetheless been allowed to define aggravating circumstances extremely broadly. Here, for example, are Florida’s aggravating factors:
The second vote, then, is the vote where a jury actually decides whether a person should get the death penalty. That step requires the jury to weigh any aggravating factors against any mitigating factors presented by the defense. Here is where the law changes.
Previously, that second vote also required unanimity, as is the case in all other death penalty states but one. The new Florida law changes it so that only 8 of 12 jurors need to vote that death is the appropriate sentence. If eight or more jurors do so, under the new law, the jury “must” recommend a death sentence to the court. (The other outlier state, Alabama, has a higher threshold — requiring at least 10 of 12 jurors to vote for death.)
Once the judge receives that recommendation of death, the judge may either sentence the person to death or to life without the possibility of parole. If the judge decides to sentence the person to life, “The court must include in its written order the reasons for not accepting the jury’s recommended sentence,” under the new law.
The new law will lead to litigation, but DeSantis and the Florida legislature have determined — probably with good reason — that the current Florida and federal courts will allow this.
This law would lead to more people being sent to Florida’s death row — already the second largest death row in the nation. As the state that has also already had the highest number of death penalty exonerations in the country, this law will likewise make it that much easier for people to wrongly be sentenced to death in Florida.
The new law also removed several other determinations in the jury's sentencing process. Under Florida's old law (implemented in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2016 that Florida's prior capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional), the jury was required to make 4 determinations unanimously. This new law removes that and ends with the two determinations you mention. I've explained this entire debacle on Tracking Florida's Death Penalty and will be following the litigation, which has already started.
We live in a completely dystopian society. Both of these stories are horrifying.