Home » Will the Supreme Court Force Oklahoma to Kill Richard Glossip?

Will the Supreme Court Force Oklahoma to Kill Richard Glossip?

For the last four months, Richard Glossip and his wife, Lea, have had a regular Monday ritual. Glossip calls Lea from his death row cell first thing in the morning. Lea makes coffee in her Oklahoma City apartment while they talk. And then she opens the computer. “We would open the docket and check the orders list from the Supreme Court,” she said. “It’s always a huge moment that’s wrapped up with so many emotions and this kind of terrifying anticipation.”

In May, the court blocked Glossip’s looming execution while it decided whether to take up his most recent appeal. The couple knew that a decision wouldn’t come before the fall. But fall came and went as they dutifully made their weekly docket checks. Glossip’s case just wasn’t there. The court kept putting off its decision. Over time, they grew comfortable not knowing, relieved to be able to enjoy the holidays in relative peace after a long and stressful year.

Then on January 22, there it was. “All of a sudden, I said, ‘It’s there. I see Glossip.’” The court had decided to review the case. “I told him, ‘It’s granted! It’s granted!’”

Lea felt a rush of emotion. “It was really overwhelming.” She told Glossip to call his lawyer, Don Knight. “We’re going to Washington,” Knight responded.

The truth is that the situation is both a blessing and a curse. Glossip has learned the hard way not to put his faith in the Supreme Court. Nearly 10 years ago, Glossip was the named plaintiff in a challenge to Oklahoma’s controversial new lethal injection protocol. After oral arguments in the spring of 2015, the justices quickly dismissed concerns that the method could amount to torture. The ruling greased the wheels for Glossip’s execution, which would have gone forward later that year if not for a last-minute revelation that the state had procured the wrong combination of drugs, forcing it to call things off. The state later revealed that it had already used the same erroneous protocol to execute a different man.

The fallout over Glossip’s near-execution was swift. The state issued a moratorium on executions and convened a bipartisan commission to study Oklahoma’s death penalty from top to bottom. In 2017, the commission issued a sweeping indictment of the system. Among its conclusions: The state of Oklahoma had condemned innocent people to death. The commission also offered a host of recommendations for reform; to date, virtually none of them have been implemented. In 2021, Oklahoma restarted executions using the same three-drug protocol as before.

Meanwhile, Glossip’s case began to draw more national attention — particularly after Investigation Discovery aired documentarian Joe Berlinger’s four-part series on the case. “Killing Richard Glossip,” which was inspired by The Intercept’s reporting, revealed evidence that undercut the state’s case against Glossip, while prompting new witnesses to come forward with information that bolstered his innocence claim. It also galvanized an unlikely contingent of supporters: Powerful state Republican lawmakers became convinced that Glossip was innocent. Determined to save him from execution, they rallied support among their peers and convinced the law firm Reed Smith to undertake a sweeping reinvestigation of the case.

The resulting 343-page report, released in 2022, painted the clearest picture to date of Glossip’s wrongful conviction. Among its revelations were stunning instances of prosecutorial misconduct. Nevertheless, no sooner had the explosive findings been made public than the state set a fourth execution date for Glossip. 

That Glossip is alive today is thanks in no small part to the Oklahoma’s attorney general, Gentner Drummond, who took office in early 2023. In the first weeks of his term Drummond announced a separate independent inquiry into Glossip’s case by a former elected district attorney and GOP state lawmaker Rex Duncan. Duncan’s report highlighted additional instances of prosecutorial misconduct, prompting Drummond to conclude that the state could not stand by Glossip’s conviction — let alone his execution. In April 2023, Drummond took the unprecedented step of asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Glossip’s conviction. But the court refused, setting the stage for Glossip’s appeal to the Supreme Court. In a statement, Drummond applauded the justices’ decision to take Glossip’s case. “As Oklahoma’s chief law officer, I will continue fighting to ensure justice is done in this case and every other.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond arrives to testify during the House Homeland Security Committee on Jan. 10, 2024.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Glossip was twice tried and sentenced to death for the January 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese inside a seedy Best Budget Inn that Van Treese owned on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. No physical evidence linked Glossip, the motel’s 34-year-old manager, to the crime. Instead, the case against him was built almost entirely on the testimony of 19-year-old Justin Sneed, who worked at the motel as a handyman.

Sneed admitted to murdering Van Treese but claimed that he was coerced by Glossip. On Sneed’s word alone, prosecutors theorized that Glossip wanted Van Treese dead so he could take over operations of the low-rent motel. At trial, they painted Sneed as powerless to resist Glossip’s commands. In exchange for testifying against Glossip, Sneed avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to life without parole.

Glossip has maintained his innocence, and over the years, evidence of his wrongful conviction has mounted. New evidence suggests that Sneed, a chronic drug user with a violent streak, initially planned to rob Van Treese, then killed him when the plan went sideways. Sneed implicated Glossip in this scheme during a coercive police interrogation. Witnesses who were ignored by police and prosecutors have since come forward to say that Sneed was cunning and manipulative and quite capable of killing a man on his own.

The multiple inquiries into Glossip’s case have exposed startling police and prosecutorial misconduct. The state destroyed a box of crucial evidence before Glossip was retried in 2004, and prosecutors suppressed evidence that Sneed sought to recant his incriminating testimony. Notes found in the state’s case file also reveal that prosecutors knew that portions of Sneed’s testimony were false.

Sneed had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium to manage it by a psychiatrist who evaluated him at the Oklahoma City Jail. At trial, Sneed denied that the evaluation ever took place and said he had no idea why he was given lithium. “I never seen no psychiatrist or anything,” Sneed testified. The prosecutors, who knew about Sneed’s diagnosis, failed to correct his testimony. This failure is in part what animated Drummond’s conclusion that Glossip’s conviction could not stand.

“There is no dispute that Sneed was the state’s key witness at the second trial. If Sneed had accurately disclosed that he had seen a psychiatrist, then the defense would have likely learned … the true reason for Sneed’s lithium prescription,” Drummond wrote in his motion asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Glossip’s conviction. “With this information plus Sneed’s history of drug addiction, the state believes that a qualified defense attorney likely could have attacked Sneed’s ability to properly recall key facts at the second trial.”

“The state has reached the difficult conclusion that the conviction of Glossip was obtained with the benefit of material misstatements to the jury by its key witness,” Drummond wrote.

The court dismissed Drummond’s conclusions, rejecting the idea that Sneed’s statement was false and suggesting that he was “more than likely in denial of his mental health disorders.” The defense didn’t cross-examine Sneed about his diagnosis, the court speculated, because doing so would have demonstrated that he was “mentally vulnerable to Glossip’s manipulation and control.” The ruling cleared the way for the state to set a new execution date for Glossip. Knight, his attorney, vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, calling it “unconscionable” for the OCCA to “attempt to force the state to move forward with this execution” given the attorney general himself agreed that the state’s star witness had been discredited. The Supreme Court stayed Glossip’s execution just days before he was set to die.

Lea and Richard Glossip at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on May 5, 2023.

Lea and Richard Glossip at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on May 5, 2023.

Courtesy of Lea Glossip

In the rare number of death penalty cases that reach the Supreme Court, state attorneys general are typically in the position of defending the conviction. Glossip’s return to Washington is extraordinary in that Drummond has made clear to the justices that he supports Glossip’s bid to overturn the case.

“Regrettably, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals refused to accept the state’s confession of error, instead reaching the extraordinary conclusion that Glossip’s execution must go forward,” Drummond wrote. “That decision cannot be the final word in this case.”

Drummond argued that the OCCA was wrong on both the facts and the law. Since Sneed was the “sole inculpatory witness” against Glossip, the state had a constitutional duty to turn over information about Sneed’s mental health diagnosis to the defense and a similar duty to correct his misleading testimony.

“The OCCA’s decision cannot be reconciled with this court’s precedents, the record in this case, or bedrock principles,” Drummond wrote.

Without Drummond to defend Glossip’s conviction, the state’s powerful prosecutors group, the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, has stepped into the void. In a friend-of-the-court brief, they argue that the prosecutors in the case did nothing wrong, Sneed’s testimony was immaterial to Glossip’s conviction, there were no constitutional violations, and the OCCA was right to dismiss the case as little more than a frivolous attempt to delay Glossip’s execution. They accuse Drummond of being duped by an activist agenda. “Glossip and his abolitionist supporters are attempting to create the specter of an innocent person being executed, so that they can further their campaign against the death penalty.”

“These people will not admit that they’re wrong.”

Former Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office oversaw Glossip’s prosecution, has staunchly defended the conviction, dismissing all evidence to the contrary as nothing more than a “bullshit PR campaign.”

Knight dismisses the DA’s brief as an unserious argument driven by political grievance. “This is us against the District Attorney’s Council,” Knight said. “These people will not admit that they’re wrong. And they can’t stand the fact that Drummond did admit that they were wrong.”

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court will likely take place in the fall. The court has never been solicitous of capital cases and has become even less so in recent years as its ideology has lurched to the right. Still, as he waits for his case to be presented a second time, Glossip feels perhaps more hopeful than ever. “Rich’s whole experience has been the ultimate loss of faith in the system,” Lea Glossip said. To see so many people willing to step up and fight for him has done much to restore his belief that he may finally walk out of prison one day. After the past year of unrelenting execution dates, “we are beyond grateful.”

For Knight, who has spent the better part of a decade fighting to keep his client alive, the court’s decision to take the case was a hard-won victory in a saga marked by exhilarating highs and devastating lows. But it’s not over yet. “I will feel vindicated the day Rich walks out of prison. I will feel vindicated then. Until then I can’t say because who knows what they’ll do.”

Join The Conversation


January 2024