The nationwide fight over the death penalty recently came to Oklahoma, as the Supreme Court upheld the state’s lethal injection procedures in Glossip v. Gross.
But that case has little bearing on a life-or-death drama playing out for its namesake, a man whom the state is determined to kill regardless of method – or the methods that it took to find a conviction in the first place.
The strange and twisted tale of Richard Glossip is a rundown of some of the worst fears of death penalty opponents. In 1997, Glossip, a motel manager, was arrested for the killing of the motel’s owner, which would go on to be prosecuted as a “murder-for-hire.” Never charged with actually carrying out the killing, Glossip was instead targeted as the mastermind, a charge he has consistently denied.
He was convicted based largely on the testimony of the man who did carry out the brutal murder.
Justin Sneed, 19 year olds at the time, confessed to beating Barry Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, and his DNA was discovered on money stolen from the victim’s car. Sneed later pointed his finger at Glossip in exchange for avoiding death row himself. He claimed that Glossip had pushed him to commit the murder by offering cash and employment opportunities, allegations for which little evidence existed.
Police interrogation footage revealed officers warning Sneed against speaking to them before listening to what they had to say – “We know,” Detective Bob Bemo said, “this involves more than just you, okay?” Sneed would assent to police suggestions, and go on to make varying and sometimes contradictory claims that would continue throughout the second trial (covered at length by The Intercept’s Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith, in a piece well worth reading in full).
During the trial, the judge told Glossip that if he would confess, he would be sentenced to life in prison with parole possible after 20 years. He refused, saying he could not perjure himself by saying he did something he had not done.
He was sentenced to die, and has remained on death row since.
Last year, Sneed’s daughter, Justine Sneed, came forward, writing in a letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board that “For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony.” But, she said, “he has been afraid to act on it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty” himself. According to Justine, her father has no relationship or communication with Glossip and no incentive to try to help him. She believes that his conscience has gotten to him.
Unfortunately – and unbelievably – Sneed’s possible change of heart may ultimately not make any impact. The testimony was never officially submitted because it arrived in the mail too late for Glossip’s attorneys to submit it to the board.
Despite the controversial conviction methods and a potential recanting witness, the state of Oklahoma has shown itself eager and willing to kill Glossip. It even indicated during the Supreme Court deliberations that it would use nitrogen gas if the Court invalidated regular execution drugs.
Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty points to the case as one exemplifying why his fellow conservatives ought to give capital punishment a second look.
“The Glossip case bears many of the hallmarks of the wrongful convictions that plague the death penalty system,” Hyden told Rare, “inept defense attorneys, zero physical evidence, and the reliance on the testimony of a single person.”
Currently, Glossip’s attorneys are seeking a 60-day reprieve from Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin, so that they can locate eyewitnesses – and try to question Justin Sneed.
If the reprieve is not granted, Richard Glossip will be executed on September 16.