Delayed Execution Echoes Tragedy of 1937 Film

Originally published for Students For Liberty in 2015.

Still from “You Only Live Once” (1937)

Depending on how you look at it, Richard Glossip’s situation is either a very lucky one — he’s had his execution date delayed multiple times (most recently on September 30th, 2015 to November 6th) — or extremely unfortunate given the circumstances that placed him on death row in the first place. He was accused of ordering the murder of a motel owner but there was very little evidence, and the story may have been fabricated by the murderer himself and a detective.

Though it sounds like the plot of a murder mystery, Glossip’s story is sadly real. It’s extraordinary nature, however, did remind me of a fictional account that further illustrates the misery imposed on inmates.

Film noir fans may be familiar with the 1937 film You Only Live Once. In it, main character Eddie Taylor is released from prison for a third time, vowing to refrain from his former life of criminal activity. He marries his fiancée, but discovers that finding a place to live and a job to work at prove to be difficult, as many people do not want to associate with a former convict. Soon enough, Eddie realizes that returning to a life of crime may be the easiest option to care for his wife and raise a family. He is accused of committing a bank robbery and murdering several bystanders, for which he maintains his innocence, saying the evidence that was found linking him to the crime was planted with the intention to frame him. Basing their decision more off of his former convictions than the evidence, the jury finds him guilty, and he is placed on death row.

With all of the love he holds for his wife and his feelings of injustice, Eddie Taylor cracks under the pressure, which ultimately leads to tragedy and a brutal reminder to the viewers of the life prisoners, guilty or not, are subjected to. Even almost eighty years later, the film is highly relevant to how the “outcasts of society” are viewed and treated.

Like Eddie Taylor’s, Richard Glossip’s life has forever been changed even if he is eventually set free. Having a rescheduled execution date and being imprisoned for years are terrible realities in themselves. Thankfully, his plight has attracted much sympathy. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, on behalf of Pope Francis, wrote a letter asking Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to commute the death sentence of Glossip. Susan Sarandon and Dr. Phil are among some of the celebrities who have called for revoking the death penalty for Glossip. With all of this attention came rays of hope like the delayed execution dates. Against a backdrop of declining public support for the death penalty, Glossip serves as an example of the risks of capital punishment and has been a catalyst for change within the criminal justice system.

Many inmates’ experiences are, of course, left out of these two stories. As most American films were back then (and even nowadays), casts were mainly comprised of white people, including You Only Live Once. So while the film documented the agonizing story of a white male character, it did not touch upon the narrative of being imprisoned or put on death row as person of color. And not all inmates on death row have the privilege Richard Glossip has of getting media’s attention, if you can even call it that.

Regardless of race, circumstance, or past convictions of inmates sentenced to execution, stories like this remind us to question the legitimacy of the death penalty, as well as the criminal justice system as a whole. Hundreds have gone under the media’s radar, and dozens continue to be faced with legal slaughter. We can only hope that the coverage of Glossip’s case will further bring to light the atrocities of a government that claims to be protecting its citizens, and that films like You Only Live Once continue to provide citizens with empathetic views towards prisoners, as bad circumstances may be the deciding factor of how freely they can live out their lives.