The Case of Richard Glossip

September 2015

I used to think the debate about capital punishment was a matter of abstract questions like when it is permissible to kill someone. In practice it isn't. In practice the problem with the death penalty is the incompetence of the people we entrust with it.

Few cases illustrate this so clearly as that of Richard Glossip. He is scheduled to be executed by the state of Oklahoma on September 30th. That is two days from now.

He cannot be exonerated by physical evidence, because there is no physical evidence connecting him with the crime.  The only evidence is the testimony of the actual murderer, Justin Sneed, who in exchange for avoiding the death penalty himself, agreed to say that Glossip put him up to it.

Sneed's daughter says he would now recant his testimony, but fears he'll get the death penalty himself if he does.

The District Attorney offered Glossip a plea bargain: life imprisonment if he pleaded guilty. Glossip did what an innocent man with faith in the judicial system would do. He turned the deal down. His faith in the system turned out to be misplaced.  And the DA inexorably asked for death.

Many who have looked closely at this case think Glossip is innocent.  I think so.  I encourage you to learn more about it and form your own conclusions. But one thing is certain: there is a reasonable doubt.

Might Sneed have lied to save his own skin? Reasonable doubt? Nothing is more likely.

Sadly, Richard Glossip is far from the only one in this situation. A 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that at least 4% of people sentenced to death are innocent.  As the New York Times Editorial Board wrote about the Glossip case:

This case pretty well sums up the state of the death penalty in America. Supporters like to say it is reserved for the "worst of the worst," but that is demonstrably untrue. It is more accurate to say that capital punishment is arbitrary, racist and meted out to those without the resources to defend themselves.

That's why we can't have the death penalty in the US.  I don't know exactly when it's permissible to kill someone. But I know for sure the Oklahoma judicial system should not be allowed to.  If they have that power, all it takes is a half-assed police investigation plus a prosecutor playing hardball with plea bargains, and innocent people die.

Richard Glossip's only hope now is if the Supreme Court intervenes. But if the whole world is talking about this case, maybe they will. And it's time we started talking about it, long past time.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Patrick Collison, Jonathan Levy, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.