Editorial: Death penalty doesn’t belong in a doubtful case

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You’d think it would be a settled issue in America that the death penalty could be applied only when there is absolutely no doubt about a defendant’s guilt.

But too often, that’s not how it works. Time after time, people are sentenced to death even when the evidence is not strong. Some of those people turn out to have been innocent all along. Just the sight of those wrongly convicted people walking out of prison — often after years of losing appeals — ought to be enough to insist on rock-solid evidence before ordering up more lethal injections in the future.

In Oklahoma, the Court of Criminal Appeals is taking another look at the case of Richard E. Glossip, who was set to be executed but was granted a two-week emergency stay with hours to spare on Wednesday.

Simply put, Glossip should never have been sentenced to death. The case against him was largely based on the testimony of an alleged accomplice who was trying to avoid the death penalty himself. The word of someone who stands to gain by testifying in a particular way should not be enough to send someone else off to the execution chamber. Ever.

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In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the system of capital punishment was too unfair to be constitutional, but gave states a chance to write new laws. The states tried, but the death penalty has continued to be arbitrary and applied mostly to people — many of them members of minority groups — who don’t have the resources to mount strong defenses. Of those sentenced to die under the new laws, 155 were later exonerated.

As a result, many states, including Illinois, have turned away from the death penalty. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished it. Recently, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf halted executions. And states that still have the death penalty are using it less. Even in Texas, long a leader in executions, no one has been sentenced to death this year.

Glossip, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted twice of ordering handyman Justin Sneed to kill Barry Van Treese, owner of the Oklahoma City motel where Glossip worked. Sneed, who is serving a life sentence, admitted killing Van Treese. He also said Glossip was to pay him $10,000 for the murder.

The courts granted this week’s emergency stay to examine new evidence raised by Glossip’s lawyers that challenges Sneed’s testimony. But the judges are missing the point here. Glossip should not have to prove his innocence, which is virtually impossible to do at this stage. It’s the paucity of the evidence against him that should have ruled out the death penalty long ago.

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