Update (January 25, 2024): The US Supreme Court this week agreed to hear Richard Glossip’s case that his conviction should be vacated, after halting his execution in May 2023. The high court rarely grants such cases from death row prisoners, but this case is unusual in that the prosecution, the Oklahoma attorney general, agreed with Glossip that the court should take up the case. In the state’s filing with the high court, it confessed “error” in the case and said as a result that executing Glossip would be “unthinkable.” If the Supreme Court had declined the case, Glossip’s execution could have moved forward. The court will likely hear the case in its fall term.
For the ninth time, Richard Glossip had an execution date in Oklahoma—this one was set for May 18. He’s been up for execution enough times that conservative Christians in the state have learned about the mishandling of his case, and some are starting to question the death penalty itself.
Last Friday, the US Supreme Court halted Glossip’s execution while it considers whether to hear procedural challenges. In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the state attorney general—whose office ordered the execution—joined Glossip in asking the court for a stay of his execution.
If the court declines to take up his case, the pause immediately goes away, and the state can move forward with the execution.
The case concerns the 1997 murder of motel owner Barry Van Treese, who was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. Justin Sneed admitted to the murder, but in a plea deal to avoid the death penalty he testified that motel employee Richard Glossip hired him to carry out the attack. Sneed received a sentence of life in prison, while Glossip was convicted and sentenced to death.
Van Treese’s family has said in previous statements that Glossip’s execution would provide them with “a sense that justice has been served.”
For decades the case has ping-ponged through appeals courts and before parole boards. Glossip has had three last meals—fish and chips, pizza, and a burger and a strawberry milkshake. One of his executions was called off minutes before he was scheduled to be injected.
The case has Christians in the state wrestling with the death penalty, mostly because they perceive a corrupt system that can’t render justice.
“I would still like to believe in capital punishment,” Oklahoma Rep. Kevin McDugle told CT. McDugle, a staunchly conservative Republican and a Christian, began investigating Glossip’s case about four years ago and found numerous problems. “Biblically I’ve gone back and forth and said, ‘My goodness, where do I stand on this?’ Personally I’m getting to the point—if we can’t get the process right, if there’s a chance of us killing an innocent man, then we can’t do it.”
McDugle said he’s received just four negative calls from constituents over his questioning of the death penalty: “Minds are changing because of cases like this.”
Brett Farley, the director of the Oklahoma Catholic Conference, has worked on the Glossip case alongside evangelical pastors.
“We have called our evangelical brothers and sisters to join us in denouncing the death penalty as inconsistent with biblical principles,” Farley told CT. “They’re slowly and surely beginning to do that.”
He sees the most change in attitude about the death penalty among younger Republican legislators, who have watched the state’s botched executions the past few years. In 2014, Oklahoma carried out the execution of Clayton Lockett with a sedative that didn’t work. Lockett died over the course of 45 minutes, writhing against his restraints.
Oklahoma has the highest per capita rate of execution in the US since the US Supreme Court began allowing executions again in 1976. The state has executed 112 people, while 10 on death row have been exonerated. The chairman of the state parole board, Adam Luck, resigned in part because of recent death penalty cases, including Glossip’s, and says he now has “persistent questions about the death penalty.”
“Oklahoma doesn’t have a good track record!” McDugle said. “How is that process not killing innocent people? … If they kill Glossip, every bill I run will be a death penalty bill.”
Glossip’s case has problems. His first conviction was vacated, and then he was convicted again in a second trial. But a later review found that evidence in the case had been destroyed and that Sneed, the key witness, had privately discussed recanting his testimony and had coaching from prosecutors to “match the evidence,” an independent report said.
The basis for conservative Christian skepticism about the death penalty in the state comes from the problems with the way the case has been handled, rather than theological ideas about people being image-bearers of God or Jesus preaching nonviolence.
Aaron Griffith, historian and author of God’s Law and Order: The Politics of Punishment in Evangelical America, said that when American Christians change their minds to oppose the death penalty, it’s often because they see “so many instances of failure of the application of the system.”
Sometimes death penalty skepticism also comes from a political suspicion of big government. That might not get evangelicals to the point of repealing the death penalty, but they might push for a moratorium on executions, as has happened in Ohio.
Less often, Griffith said, Christians may begin opposing the death penalty for theological reasons, like adopting a view of the sanctity of life that includes both the unborn and those on death row. Or they “become aware of fellow Christians on death row.”
If “God is restoring and redeeming people on death row,” he said, then executing the person is possibly undoing “the powerful work of God in a person’s life, or the potential work God might do.”
“This is true in the Glossip case as well,” he added. “This is a fellow Christian.”
Matthew Arbo wishes there were better Christian arguments in favor of the death penalty, even though he opposes it.
As a former professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, Arbo knows people who have worked on the Glossip case, and he finds support for the execution is often based simply in an idea of “retaliation.” If Christians support capital punishment “in the unfiltered, unhesitant way that it has been [supported] … it is worth additional faithful interrogation.”
Looking at the Glossip case, he said he noted some growth of skepticism toward the death penalty in certain evangelical communities, but that it was “very slow and very gradual.”
“Not too many go all the way [in opposition],” he said. “There’s an appetite for that form of punishment.”
Oklahomans voted the death penalty into the state constitution in 2016, with 66 percent of the vote. A 2021 poll in the state showed 64 percent in favor of the death penalty (with 41 percent strongly favoring, much higher than the national average). In 2023, the same polling firm found that half of Oklahomans (51%) favored life without parole over the death penalty.
Nationally, the number of executions has been declining as public support has declined, but most Americans still favor it as a form of punishment.
Protestant support for the death penalty has been relatively steady over the last decade, according to Pew Research surveys. In surveys, white evangelicals have always been the religious demographic with the most support for capital punishment.
In the 1970s, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) advocated for the death penalty, seeing it as just payback and a deterrent for “horrendous crimes.” In 2015, the NAE changed its stance to say that Christians could make ethical arguments both for and against the death penalty. That shift may also reflect a more racially diverse evangelicalism, where other demographics are less supportive of capital punishment.
Last week, the day before the Supreme Court halted Glossip’s execution, Christian leaders joined McDugle and other Republican legislators at a press conference about Glossip. State Rep. J. J. Humphrey, a Republican, was wrestling with his views on the issue in real time.
Humphrey, who previously worked in the state Department of Corrections, said, “Nobody is a more outspoken supporter of the death penalty than me.”
“I thought there’s no way this person could be sent to death and be innocent,” he said. “I still support the death penalty, but I’m shaken because of what I’ve seen of our system. … I don’t know where I stand, to tell you the truth.”
Pastor John-Mark Hart, pastor of Redemption Church in Oklahoma City who joined the press conference, noted that “it would be a positive evil to kill a person who is not guilty of this crime … how many innocent people are we willing to kill in order to preserve this system?”
Hart signed a letter, titled Christ and Capital Punishment, with 25 other Christian leaders of churches (including Presbyterian, Baptist, and Nazarene) in Oklahoma calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in the state, “given the current reality of our state’s criminal justice system, our shared convictions regarding the sanctity of human life, and the proper function of state power.” The letter now has 300 signatures from leaders in Oklahoma.
Standing beside Hart was Demetrius Minor, a Black pastor who leads Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty and described himself as pro-life. Minor noted that executions, especially of the wrongfully convicted, “only continue a cycle of violence.”
McDugle closed the press conference with prayer: “Dear Heavenly Father, give Oklahoma grace and mercy. All have sinned and fallen short. Lord, put us on the right path to do the right thing. … Allow us a pathway to correct our judicial system. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”