MCALESTER, Okla. -- A tense scene that had unfolded just two weeks earlier was playing out again at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
In the bowels of the prison, Richard Glossip was preparing for execution as five of his witnesses waited in a bare prison rec room to watch him die. They had been in this same spot on Sept. 16 before he received a brief reprieve in the form of a stay issued by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
This time, the excruciating uncertainty stretched more than four and a half hours. The prison coffee pot had long run out, and the bright chatter among witnesses had dwindled to low tones and long pauses.
There had been no news for more than an hour after Glossip’s 3 p.m. execution time had come and gone. Then a prison guard’s radios crackled: “Escort number 3 back to their vehicles.”
Three meant van three, the van carrying activist Sister Helen Prejean, two of Glossip’s friends and reporters from Sky News and The Huffington Post. With little ceremony, the guard told the witnesses they were going back to their vehicles.
There would be no execution today.
Outside, news had arrived that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) had issued a 37-day stay due to an issue with the execution drugs. Her temporary stay came shortly after the Supreme Court declined to halt the execution. An Oklahoma court had already refused to halt it earlier this week.
"Last minute questions were raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection," Fallin said in a statement, adding that the decision came after consultation with the attorney general and the Department of Corrections.
The DOC received potassium acetate as one of the drugs to be used to carry out the execution, the governor said, adding that the stay "will give the Department of Corrections and its attorneys the opportunity to determine whether potassium acetate is compliant with the execution protocol," or alternatively, "to obtain potassium chloride." The legality of potassium acetate is not at all clear, let alone its effectiveness as a method of capital punishment.
More than a dozen of Glossip’s relatives, including his daughters, siblings, nieces and nephews, were gathered on the road outside the prison entrance.
Billie Jo Boyiddle, Glossip’s niece, said they were blowing up balloons and writing messages for Glossip to put inside when they heard the news that Fallin had granted a stay.
"That was unexpected," Nancy Ogden, Glossip’s older sister, said of the governor’s move.
Boyiddle said they released the balloons -- but without the messages inside. “This was a happy occasion,” she said.
Ogden said Wednesday was the first time in years this many family members were all in the same place.
“You tell him I love him,” Kathy Jo Atkins, another of Glossip’s younger sisters, said while smiling through tears. “And I’ll be there the day he walks out.”
The hopefulness was an unexpected development in the Glossip saga. Now spared from his fourth execution attempt, he is scheduled to be back in the death chamber Nov. 6.
His lawyers, in the meantime, plan to continue uncovering evidence in the hopes of getting him a post-conviction hearing. Their ultimate goal: Prove his innocence and send him home.
During the more than four hours the witnesses waited, a sense of finality set in the way it hadn’t before. Glossip’s friend Crystal Martinez choked up recalling her promise to take him to see the world when the whole ordeal was over. She was confident she would be leaving with his ashes.
Prejean, meanwhile, encouraged everyone to stay “in the present moment.”
“Richard is alive right now,” she reminded everyone. In between the words of encouragement, witnesses retreated to corners of the room for a moment alone.
When news of the stay was delivered, there was more confusion than shock. For a second time in two weeks, tears flowed and tight hugs were exchanged.
As witnesses piled into the van, they still knew nothing more than the fact that Glossip would see another day.
As the van of witnesses rolled toward the prison exit, Prejean said softly, “I will walk in the presence of the Lord. And the land of the living.”
Just hours before Fallin issued her stay, Glossip told The Huffington Post by phone that he remained optimistic about his case.
"I’m not going to let these people get me down. I just can’t," Glossip said. He said on Tuesday that he spoke to several people from the United Nations who said they were working to end the death penalty in the U.S. and abroad.
"I think this is about to be a trying time for the death penalty," Glossip said.
In 1997, Best Budget Inn handyman Justin Sneed confessed to beating Van Treese to death with a baseball bat. A week later, Sneed said that Glossip, his supervisor at the Oklahoma City motel, ordered him to do it. Based solely on Sneed's testimony, Glossip was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Sneed is serving a life sentence at a medium-security prison after striking a deal in which he implicated Glossip as the mastermind.
Though Glossip claimed innocence, the state said he was a manipulator who had influence over the vulnerable 19-year-old handyman. With his boss out of the picture, Glossip would be secure in his job and could even take over the motel.
In recent weeks, Glossip's lawyers had presented new evidence attacking Sneed's credibility as a witness. They presented affidavits from Sneed's former cellblock neighbors who testified Sneed had bragged about setting up Glossip and walking away with a deal.
Glossip's lawyers also maintain that their witnesses were intimidated by the District Attorney's office, and note that one was arrested on specious charges related to an unpaid fine.
Further questions about the fairness of Glossip's trial were raised after Oklahoma investigative reporter Phil Cross of Fox 25 discovered earlier this month that evidence was destroyed before Glossip's case even went to appeals. Cross also uncovered discrepancies in the medical examiner's highly influential testimony.
The past several months of Glossip's legal battle have coincided with a renewed debate over the death penalty in the United States. Death penalty opponents argue Glossip's case is representative of the system's many problems, including the arbitrary application of the punishment, the disproportionate number of poor people on death row and an imperfect track record that has seen at least 155 people wrongfully placed on death row.
Glossip made international headlines when he became the lead plaintiff in a controversial case the Supreme Court decided on the final day of its last session in June. He and other death row inmates had mounted a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma's use of midazolam, a controversial sedative blamed for several botched executions. The justices ruled that the drug did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Also on HuffPost: