The death row inmate whose conviction looks so shaky even Oklahoma Republicans are fighting to save him

Richard Glossip ((Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP))
Richard Glossip ((Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP))

Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip, 59, has escaped the execution chamber three times. He may yet survive a fourth time if a growing innocence movement around his case is successful.

Glossip was convicted of ordering the 1997 murder of his boss at an Oklahoma City motel and has been in criminal justice limbo ever since. His death date has been postponed twice because of court-mandated delays. In 2015, the state of Oklahoma realised at the last minute it was using the wrong execution drugs and called things off once again, part of the impetus for a series of investigations that led to a six-year pause in executions.

In 2022, things look very different. Earlier this month, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt ordered a 60-day postponement of Glossip’s execution, to allow a state appeals court to consider newly surfaced evidence that Glossip may have had nothing to do with the headline-grabbing murder that put him away.

This summer, an outside investigation – requested by state lawmakers – by law firm Reed Smith, with 30 attorneys working through 12,000 documents, found heaps of new information about the case, raising serious questions about whether Oklahoma was about to execute an innocent man.

“Our conclusion is that no reasonable juror, hearing the complete record, and the uncovered facts ... would have convicted Richard Glossip of capital murder,” Reed Smith attorney Stan Perry said in June.

But as those familiar with death row know better than most, the criminal justice system isn’t always a reasonable place, where the complete record sees the light of day.

On 7 January, 1997, 19-year-old maintenance man Justin Sneed beat his boss, 54-year-old motel owner Barry Van Treese, to death with a baseball bat. Oklahoma police arrested the teenager, who had a history of drug addiction, violence, and past criminal offences, soon after, but the investigation didn’t end there.

Detectives became convinced that Richard Glossip, 33 at the time, who lived and worked at the hotel as manager, was the mastermind of the killing.

Their theory was that Glossip, who had no significant criminal history, and who regularly handled thousands of dollars in cash on behalf of the owner Van Treese, decided to rob and then murder his employer, splitting the proceeds with Sneed.

“The thing that didn’t make any sense right off the bat is Richard Glossip had all the money, he always had all the money. It was a cash kind of business. He would hold money until Van Treese came to pick it up,” Don Knight, Glossip’s current attorney, told The Independent. “That never made any sense to me. You could have twice as much and you didn’t have to kill anybody to get it. You could just walk off. That was absolutely insane to me.”

No physical or witness evidence linked Glossip to the killing, and the state’s case against the 33-year-old rested, an Oklahoma appeals court later put it, “entirely” on the word of Sneed.

In a gruelling interrogation of Sneed, police officers, including a detective against whom Glossip had previously filed a complaint in an unrelated matter, suggested Glossip was culpable six times in the first 20 minutes.

“So is this going to help me out at all by telling you all this?” Sneed asked at one point.

One detective went so far as to tell the 19-year-old, “The first one that comes forward is the one that’s gonna be helping himself.”

At trial, in 2001, the jury never learned of this full-court press from officers. Sneed reached an agreement with prosecutors to testify against Glossip and got a life sentence. Glossip, who has always maintained his innocence was sentenced to death for the crime of murder for hire. In 2004, after getting his first conviction thrown out on appeal. Glossip was convicted again, though the judge acknowledged that unlike most death penalty cases, the evidence in this one wasn’t “overwhelming.”

In the intervening years, Glossip continued to try and challenge his conviction, and he helped lead a lawsuit all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2015 challenging the state of Oklahoma’s often unreliable lethal injection process, but he couldn’t seem to convince the justice system that the case deserved a second look.

Then, however, he got a new team of attorneys, and anti-death penalty activists like Sister Helen Prejean got involved in advocating on his behalf. This infusion of new momentum helped uncover a trove of shocking new evidence that painted a far more complicated picture than the deep faith Oklahoma officials had that Glossip arranged the killing.

In 2015, lawyers produced a signed affidavit from one of Sneed’s fellow inmates, Michael Scott, who claimed Sneed had admitted “he set Richard Glossip up, and that Richard Glossip didn’t do anything.”

The Independent has contacted the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office, which represented Sneed, for comment on his behalf.

The investigation by Reed Smith got even closer to fully flipping the narrative. It discovered a series of letters from Sneed that seemed to indicate he was having a crisis of faith about his testimony.

A 2001 letter, before Glossip’s second trial, captured Sneed describing how the process might give him the chance to “ponder the right thing to do.” In 2003, he wrote to his lawyer that, “Parts of me are curious that if I chose to do this again, do I have the choice of re-canting my testimony at any time during my life, or anything like that.” More recently, investigators found a 2007 message from Sneed, where he admitted, “There are a lot of things right now that are eating at me… Some things I need to clean up.”

The red flags don’t end there. Subsequent investigations have found that the Oklahoma City Police Department, at the direction of the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, destroyed boxes of evidence before Glossip’s retrial, including financial records, in seeming contravention of a longstanding agreement betweenthe two offices not to destroy evidence in a capital case.

“This loss or destruction of evidence appears to be so critical to the defense as to cast serious doubt as to the fundamental fairness of the criminal trial against Glossip,” the Reed Smith report stated.

(The DA’s office has said it only destroyed evidence unnecessary to the case.)

Surveillance video from a gas station near the site of the murder has also disappeared. Van Treese’s car, which had $23,100 in its trunk, was released to his family. Jurors never learned about the police’s aggressive interrogation tactics. Nor did they know Cliff Everhart, one of the state’s witnesses, was under investigation by Oklahoma state police, including for making false statements to law enforcement. Sneed offered conflicting versions of events each time he was interviewed.

Media investigations have shed further light on Sneed.

Even though neither police nor Glossip’s lawyers conducted extensive interviews of those at the motel at the time of the murder, bystanders paint a very different picture of what happened compared to the story that ended up in court.

Stephanie Garcia, who worked as an escort and dancer at a nearby club, and would regularly stay at the motel where the murder took place, told The Intercept it was thought that Sneed had been stealing from the hotel to feed his methamphetamine habit.

“He was slick. I mean, you turn your back on him, in a second he’ll have his hand in your purse,” she told the outlet. “He disgusted me,” she added.

A week before the 1997 murder, Ms Garcia said she and her friends fled the motel because Sneed grabbed one of her friends by the throat and pinned her to a motel room wall, only stopping when Ms Garcia pulled out a knife and threatened him.

The new evidence in the case inspired a group of unlikely allies for Glossip: Republican lawmakers.

The state has a long tradition of tough-on-crime policies, and one of the most prolific death chambers, but even pro-capital punishment legislators began asking questions about the Glossip case.

In 2021, Representative Kevin McDugle, a supporter of the death penalty, filed legislation to make the state’s first conviction integrity unit, to avoid potential executions of innocent individuals.

"I believe that the people of Oklahoma deserve a full accounting of what went wrong in this case in a new hearing so we can ensure we are not executing an innocent man," Mr McDugle said the following year after the release of the Reed Smith report. "That’s why my colleagues and I asked for this independent investigation, and why I am so convinced that we need a new hearing in this case to help fix what’s been done to this man."

“If we put Richard Glossip to death, I will fight in this state to abolish the death penalty, simply because the process is not pure,” he added.

In August, 61 Oklahoma lawmakers, a majority of them Republicans, threw their support behind the state Court of Criminal Appeals hosting a new evidentiary hearing in Glossip’s case.

State and local officials, so far, have appeared unmoved. Governor Stitt previously granted clemency to death row inmates like Julius Jones, but hasn’t weighed in yet on Glossip’s case. His attorney general has pushed back against the Glossip team’s attempt to get a new evidentiary hearing in state appeals court.

The Independent has contacted the governor’s and attorney general’s offices for comment.

“I don’t just have beyond-a-reasonable-doubt assurances in my mind that Mr. Glossip is guilty, but to a moral certainty I’m convinced he’s guilty,” current Oklahoma County district attorney David Prater said in 2015.

The Independent has contacted Mr Prater for comment.

Richard Glossip’s fate now sits in the hands of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which is weighing whether to hold a hearing about new evidence in the case. If the hearing happens, and is persuasive, the appeals court could send the case back down for another trial.

If not, Glossip is scheduled to be executed in December

Mr Knight, Glossip’s attorney, hopes people pay attention to this case because of what he says it reveals about the capital punishment system, where those on death row are frequently from disadvantaged groups, the victims of racist policework and lifelong trauma, and are completely innocent in shockingly high numbers.

“If this can happen to Rich Glossip, who is really a nobody, it can happen to anybody,” he said.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.