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Supreme Court Will Hear Oklahoma Death Row Prisoner’s Appeal

The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from Richard Glossip, a man on death row in Oklahoma who has maintained his innocence throughout several attempts by the state to execute him.

Glossip, whose case will be heard in the fall, has survived nine execution dates. Each time, his scheduled death has been delayed due to either questions about the legality of the state’s method of killing or because of the overwhelming evidence that he is not guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced to death.

In the years since Glossip’s first execution date in 2014, there have been a series of botched executions in Oklahoma, prompting researchers to examine the autopsies of the people who were killed. Those autopsies show signs that the the state’s lethal injection protocol may torture people as it kills them. At the same time, the stack of evidence pointing to Glossip’s innocence has continued to grow. At this point, Glossip’s innocence claims are so credible that Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond (R) — the state’s top prosecutor, who would typically defend a death sentence in court — is now trying to save Glossip’s life.

“Richard Glossip’s innocence case is unlike anything the country has ever seen,” Don Knight, an attorney for Glossip, said in a statement. “The Oklahoma Attorney General’s concession of error is historically unprecedented, as is the outpouring of support from 62 Oklahoma legislators, including at least 45 death penalty supporting Republican lawmakers. Two independent investigations cast grave doubts on the reliability of Mr. Glossip’s conviction.

“We are gratified that the United States Supreme Court has agreed that it is worthy of full consideration and look forward to our chance to help the Justices understand why it is critical that Mr. Glossip finally be given his chance at a fair trial.”

Glossip, 60, was twice convicted and sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese, the owner of a Best Budget Inn where Glossip worked as a manager. Justin Sneed, the motel’s 19-year-old handyman, admitted to killing Van Treese, but he claimed that it was Glossip’s idea. There was no physical evidence of Glossip’s involvement — only testimony from Sneed, who avoided the death penalty by implicating Glossip at trial.

The Oklahoma Court of Appeals vacated Glossip’s first conviction in 2001, finding he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The court’s opinion noted that evidence corroborating Sneed’s testimony “was extremely weak.” But Glossip was tried and sentenced to death again in 2004.

Since then, multiple witnesses continued to come forward with evidence that Sneed had acted alone. Ahead of Glossip’s first scheduled execution in 2014, Sneed’s daughter told the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that her father had been considering recanting his testimony and that she strongly believed Glossip was innocent. Still, the board unanimously denied Glossip’s request for clemency.

Glossip survived his first two execution dates because of issues related to the state’s lethal injection protocol. His third execution date was stayed after his lawyers released affidavits from people with relevant knowledge to the case. One came from a man named Michael Scott, who said that Sneed told him while they were in prison together that he had blamed Glossip for the murder to save his own life. Shortly after the third execution was postponed, another man who was incarcerated with Sneed, Joseph Tapley, came forward and said that Sneed spoke in detail about his crime but never indicated anyone else was involved, The Intercept reported in 2015.

Faced with mounting evidence that they had been working to execute an innocent man, prosecutors refused to concede any wrongdoing. Then-Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater dismissed the new information as a “bullshit PR campaign” and worked to intimidate witnesses.

Oklahoma paused executions in 2015 after the high-profile botched killings of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, both of whom showed visible signs of pain after being injected with lethal drugs. Glossip, who by then had survived five execution dates, was temporarily spared from death.

In 2017, Republican state Rep. Kevin McDugle watched a four-part docuseries about Glossip’s case. He wasn’t immediately convinced of Glossip’s innocence but he wanted to know more. He got in touch with Glossip’s post-conviction lawyer and devoured all the material he could find. He learned about how the district attorney’s office ordered the destruction of evidence before Glossip’s second trial, complicating Glossip’s efforts to disprove the state’s claims.

McDugle went to visit Glossip on death row and found him to be “genuine, kind.” He told McDugle, “There’s two things they can’t take away from you in prison and one is your gift of giving and one is your gift of joy,” New York magazine reported.

McDugle organized a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers who asked the law firm Reed Smith to conduct a pro bono independent review of Glossip’s case. For months, a team of more than 30 lawyers spent more than 3,700 hours investigating the case.

Their initial findings released in 2022 and the five subsequent supplemental reports were damning for the state. The law firm revealed a shoddy police investigation and intentional destruction of evidence by the state. It found that Sneed only implicated Glossip in the killing after detectives mentioned Glossip’s name six times during an interrogation.

“Considering the facts we uncovered, and that there exists no physical forensic evidence or credible corroborating testimony linking Glossip to the crime, our conclusion is that no reasonable juror hearing the complete record would have convicted Richard Glossip of first-degree murder,” Reed Smith partner Stan Perry said in a statement in June of 2022.

The firm also reviewed letters Sneed wrote to his lawyer suggesting he regretted testifying against Glossip. “Do I have the choice of recanting my testimony at any time during my life, or anything like that?” he asked his lawyer in 2003, ahead of Glossip’s second trial.

“There are a lot of things that are eating at me,” Sneed wrote in 2007 after Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Glossip’s second conviction. “Somethings [sic] I need to clean up.”

After Reed Smith disclosed its findings, Glossip asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to grant him a hearing to present new evidence of his innocence. Sixty-one lawmakers, mostly Republican, urged then-Attorney General John O’Connor to support his request, but O’Connor declined and the court rejected Glossip’s evidentiary hearing request.

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) delayed Glossip’s sixth and seventh execution dates to allow the court time to rule on pending litigation.

In January of last year, Drummond, the newly inaugurated attorney general, appointed an independent counsel to review Glossip’s conviction and death sentence. The review, conducted by a former District Attorney named Rex Duncan, prompted Drummond to disavow Glossip’s conviction.

“After thorough and serious deliberation, I have concluded that I cannot stand behind the murder conviction and death sentence of Richard Glossip,” Drummond said in an April 6 statement. “This is not to say I believe he is innocent. However, it is critical that Oklahomans have absolute faith that the death penalty is administered fairly and with certainty. Considering everything I know about this case, I do not believe that justice is served by executing a man based on the testimony of a compromised witness.”

In a stunning turn of events, Drummond filed a motion with the Court of Criminal Appeals asking it to overturn Glossip’s conviction and send the case back to trial court.

Still, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Glossip’s conviction. Days later, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 2-2 to deny his clemency request. The board’s fifth member recused himself because his wife helped send Glossip to death row and under the board’s rules, a majority is required to recommend clemency. Glossip’s lawyer argued in a court motion that the board should have found an alternate fifth member to avoid a tie vote.

On July 5, Drummond urged the Supreme Court to vacate Glossip’s conviction and grant him a new trial.

The Court of Criminal Appeals’ refusal to accept the state’s admission of error “cannot be the final word in this case,” Drummond wrote. “After all, the injustice of allowing a capital sentence to be carried out where the conviction was occasioned by the government’s own admitted failings would be nigh unfathomable.”


January 2024