ON JUNE 29, the very day the United States Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol in Glossip v. Gross, signaling to the state that it could resume executions, State Attorney General Scott Pruitt wasted no time. His office sent a request to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals asking that death warrants be signed for the next three men in line for the gurney — the same three men whose challenge had made it all the way to Washington. “The above inmates have exhausted all regular state and federal appeals,” the attorney general wrote, respectfully urging the Court to schedule their executions. On Wednesday, July 8, the Court complied, setting three dates for the fall.
Richard Glossip is first in line to die, on September 16. As the lead plaintiff in the case before the Supreme Court, his name became synonymous with the legal fight over midazolam, a drug linked to a number of botched executions, but which the Court decided is constitutional for carrying out lethal injections. Glossip, who spoke to The Intercept hours after the ruling, did not have time to dwell on the decision. Even if the Court had ruled in his favor, he pointed out, Oklahoma remained determined to execute him and has provided itself with a range of options for doing so — most recently, adding nitrogen gas to the mix. With a new execution date looming, “I’m trying to stop them from killing me by any method,” Glossip said, “because of the fact that I’m innocent.”
Glossip has always maintained his innocence, ever since he was arrested in the winter of 1997 for a grisly killing that authorities prosecuted as a murder-for-hire. It is true that he himself did not kill anyone — a 19-year-old man named Justin Sneed confessed to police that he beat the victim to death with a baseball bat — but Glossip was identified as the “mastermind” behind the crime. Sneed, who worked for Glossip, claimed his boss pressured him to carry out the murder, offering him employment opportunities and several thousand dollars in return. There was very little additional evidence to back up his claims, but Sneed nevertheless was able to secure the state’s conviction of Glossip, saving himself from death row. Today, Sneed is serving life without parole at a medium security prison in Lexington, Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Glossip faces execution, while continuing to insist he had nothing to do with the murder. Last January, he came within a day of being executed and was in the process of saying goodbye to family when the Supreme Court granted certiorari to his lethal injection challenge.
“I’m trying to stop them from killing me by any method, because of the fact that I’m innocent.”
Glossip has some outspoken supporters, including family members, the longtime anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, as well as his former defense attorney, Wayne Fournerat, who was adamant in a conversation with The Intercept that his former client is innocent. But last October a particularly unlikely figure came forward to plead that Oklahoma spare Glossip’s life: O’Ryan Justine Sneed — Justin Sneed’s grown daughter. In a letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, she wrote that, based on her many communications with her dad, she “strongly believe[s]” that Richard Glossip is an innocent man. “For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony,” she wrote. “I feel his conscious [sic] is getting to him.”
Justine Sneed’s letter never reached the board. It arrived in the mail too late for Glossip’s attorneys to submit it for consideration. To date, Sneed himself has not come forward — according to his daughter, he fears what it could mean for his plea deal. Nor has she made any further public statements since her letter was published. (The Intercept made numerous attempts to reach her for an interview.) Her claims do not prove that Sneed lied, of course. But the available records in the 18-year-old case of Richard Glossip are themselves good reason for concern. From the police interrogation of Justin Sneed in 1997 to transcripts from Glossip’s two trials, the picture that emerges is one of a flimsy conviction, a case based on the word of a confessed murderer with a very good incentive to lie, and very little else. As Oklahoma gets ready to restart executions using its newly sanctioned lethal injection protocol, time is running out to answer the question: Could the state be preparing to kill an innocent man?
IT WAS SOMETIME after 4 a.m. on January 7, 1997, that 33-year-old Richard Glossip woke up to the sound of pounding on the wall outside his apartment at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City. He lived there with his girlfriend of five years, D-Anna Wood; she later described waking up to “scraping on the wall.” It was “kind of scary loud,” she said.
Glossip had lived at the motel since 1995, when he was hired by the owner, Barry Van Treese, a father of five who lived some 90 miles away and owned a second motel in Tulsa. Van Treese happened to be visiting Oklahoma City, but he generally relied on Glossip to run the daily operations, only dropping by a couple times a month to pay his staff and check on the property. For managing the Best Budget Inn, Glossip received a salary of $1,500 a month, as well as room and board in the apartment adjacent to the motel’s office. On Mondays, which were usually slower nights, he and Wood would lock the front door to the motel around 2 a.m. Any guest trying to check in after that hour had to ring a buzzer to get in.
It wasn’t particularly unusual for Glossip and Wood to hear noise late at night at the Best Budget Inn. By all accounts, the motel was a dump. Located just off the interstate on the city’s west side, it hosted drunks (and drunks fighting), drug-dealers (and police drug stings), and hookers (and other hook-ups coming out of the nearby strip club), according to interviews and court records. Rooms went for less than $30 a night. When Glossip got up and opened the door that morning, he saw the motel’s maintenance man, 19-year-old Justin Sneed. He had a black eye.
What happened next depends on who you believe. As Glossip tells it, Sneed told him that a couple of drunks had broken a window, “so I told him to fix the window,” he would later testify. “He’s the maintenance man.” According to Glossip, Sneed denied that the drunks were responsible for his injury — he said he had run them off. But then, Glossip says, Sneed said something crazy. As he turned to walk away, Glossip testified, “I said, ‘Come on, Justin.’ I said, ‘Really, what happened to your eye?’ He then looked at me and said he killed Barry.”
Glossip says he turned to look at the spot where Barry Van Treese always parked his car, under the canopy in front of the office. It wasn’t there, he said, so he assumed Van Treese had not yet returned from Tulsa, where he’d gone the night before to pay employees at the other motel. He says he figured Sneed was messing with him — some sort of “wisecrack,” as he recently told The Intercept. “I just looked at him and he didn’t look like — you know what I mean? I just didn’t take him serious,” he said. Glossip went back to bed.
But, in fact, Barry Van Treese really was dead. His car would be discovered later that morning, parked haphazardly in a nearby parking lot — and his body would be found that night, on the floor beneath a pile of bedding at the foot of the waterbed in Room 102. It was the nicest room in the motel, where Van Treese usually stayed when he came to do business at the Best Budget Inn. Now the walls and carpet were covered in blood.Sneed’s fingerprints were also all over the room. DNA would later be collected from a $100 bill stolen from several thousand dollars in motel cash receipts stashed under the seat of Van Treese’s gray Buick — that, too, would match Sneed. A week later, on January 14, Sneed was arrested.
By then, Glossip was already in custody, and had told police what Sneed had confessed to him about killing their boss. But it had taken Glossip a suspiciously long time to do so. When he was first questioned by police, on January 8, he made no mention of Sneed’s remark. Later he would testify that he had wanted to say something, but “D-Anna told me not to tell anybody until they knew for sure” that Van Treese was dead. Wood confirmed that this was the case in her own testimony. It was only when Glossip was taken in for questioning again the next day that he described the early morning exchange outside his apartment on January 7.
Regardless, Sneed soon confessed to police. He described how he had entered Room 102 using his master set of keys and, as Van Treese awoke, attacked him with a baseball bat. Van Treese fought back, knocking Sneed backward and breaking the window. But Sneed eventually overpowered him, beating him to death. The medical examiner would say that Van Treese received at least nine blows to the head. He died wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it. It read, “Jesus Carry the Cross For Us.”
But upon confessing, Sneed said he did not act alone. While he acknowledged going to Glossip’s apartment and telling him he killed Van Treese, in his version of events, his boss was expecting him. Glossip had been pressuring him for months to murder Van Treese, Sneed explained. “Every time that Mr. Van Treese showed up [at the Best Budget Inn], he was wanting me to kill him,” he would testify in 1998. Sneed gave various explanations for why Glossip wanted Van Treese dead. “Richard was trying to tell me that with Mr. Van Treese out of the way, that he might be able to con the wife of the deceased into letting him run both of the motels,” he testified, adding that Glossip had offered to let him manage one of them. He also claimed that Glossip was worried that Van Treese — who had arrived at the motel on January 6 with plans to examine the 52 rooms in order to undertake any necessary repairs or renovations — would discover he had not been doing a good job maintaining the property and fire him.
Regardless of the precise motivations, according to Sneed, around 3:30 a.m. on January 7, Glossip called him in his room, 117, and told him it was time. Van Treese had just returned from his other motel in Tulsa, and was in Room 102. Sneed said that Glossip offered him several thousand dollars — he has given different amounts at different times — to go in and murder their boss, suggesting the baseball bat as a weapon. If he didn’t do it now, Glossip said, they would both be kicked out of the motel.
Sneed says he mulled it over for awhile, walking over to the nearby gas station for a Coke. In the end, he would say, “I guess I let my pride get a little bit in the way.” He went to Room 102 and killed Van Treese.
THE SEQUENCE OF events that followed also depends on who you believe. But there were a number of details upon which Glossip and Sneed agreed, which are consistent with the testimony from others at the motel. Although they create more questions than answers, they suggest that there was no rush on anyone’s part to dispose of the body of Barry Van Treese.
Around 8:30 that morning, Glossip and Sneed went outside to cover the exterior of the broken window to Room 102 with plexiglass. (Sneed had previously placed a shower curtain over it.) Later, Glossip returned to his room to take a nap, then got up in the early afternoon to run some errands with Wood. After a visit to the optician for a new pair of glasses, Glossip bought Wood an engagement ring for about $100. Then they went to Walmart. By then, Van Treese’s car had been discovered; the desk clerk called Walmart and asked the store to page Glossip, who then returned to the Best Budget Inn. Van Treese’s body was discovered at 10 p.m. that night.
By the time the body was found, Sneed had already fled the motel. Police wouldn’t find him for five days.
The extent of the official investigation into the murder is unclear. The Oklahoma City Police Department has declined to release the entire police report. But, from the start, police appear to have largely taken their cues from a private investigator and former police officer named Cliff Everhart, who was the first to point the finger at Glossip as a suspect. Everhart did security work at the Best Budget Inn, and claimed to own a 1 percent interest in the motel. (Donna Van Treese, Barry’s widow, testified at each of Glossip’s two trials that she had no knowledge of Everhart’s alleged ownership stake in the family’s motel operation.)
After Van Treese’s car was discovered on the morning of January 7, but before anyone knew he was dead, Everhart drove around with Glossip and Wood searching in nearby dumpsters. (“And he said, ‘Barry, Barry, are you in here?’” Wood recalled on the stand.)
Why Everhart would direct the search party to area dumpsters is unknown, and he has since died. Everhart testified that it was his idea to check all of the surrounding areas — an empty field, the dumpsters — for signs of Van Treese. “[T]o see if Barry had wandered out and had passed out in the cold,” he testified in 2004. “I didn’t know what had happened.”
Oklahoma Police Sergeant Timothy Brown testified that he got involved in the search after seeing the group checking a dumpster by the neighboring McDonald’s, then pulling up to talk to them — though Everhart would testify in 2004 that it was he who called Brown to the motel to aid in the search. Later that night, Sergeant Brown accompanied Everhart to Room 102, where they found Van Treese’s body. In the meantime, it was Everhart who reportedly ordered a search of the rooms in the motel, which Sneed said he “pretended to do.”
Explaining his suspicion of Glossip, Everhart cited his “inconsistent stories” about the last time he claimed to have seen Van Treese. Others, including Sergeant Brown, echoed Everhart’s assertions, saying that Glossip claimed to have last seen Van Treese in the parking lot the morning of January 7, when in reality he was already dead.
Particularly damning was the testimony of Billye Hooper, the daytime desk clerk at the Best Budget Inn. She repeatedly testified that after she came into work that morning Glossip told her Van Treese had left an hour earlier, probably to get breakfast and some materials for renovating the motel rooms. According to Hooper, Glossip told her that Van Treese had stayed in Room 108 the night before, and that he had rented Room 102 to some drunks who ended up breaking the window. She said she found this strange, since 102 was “the nicest room in the place” and Van Treese was “a teetotaler and did not like people that drank at all.” She further testified that Glossip told her to leave Room 102 off the housekeeping list, because he and Sneed were going to go take care of the window. (Sneed would testify that he was the one who told the maid to ignore Room 102.)
Although Hooper’s testimony was consistent throughout the prosecution, Glossip staunchly denies that it was accurate. “I never told her that, ever,” he told The Intercept, suggesting that Hooper held a grudge against him. Glossip said he always had a decent relationship with Hooper, who has since died, until she injured herself off the job and was for a while unable to work. During that time, Glossip said he ran the motel alone, “24/7.” When Van Treese notified Glossip that he was going to put Hooper back on the payroll even though she wasn’t yet back at work, Glossip said he scoffed. When Hooper returned to work, Glossip said their relationship was never the same.
Glossip has consistently denied telling anyone that he saw Van Treese that morning, testifying that people must have misinterpreted his estimates about seeing him around the seven-o’clock hour as referring to a.m. rather than p.m. He insists he meant he’d last seen his boss the evening before, at 7:50 at night, before Van Treese left for Tulsa.
No one had ever heard Sneed or Glossip speak of a murder plot.
In any event, apart from the intimations of Hooper and Everhart, no one had ever heard Sneed or Glossip speak of a murder plot. None of Van Treese’s belongings turned up in Glossip’s possession. And although Sneed claimed that Glossip accompanied him to Room 102 after the murder, there was no physical evidence to link him to the crime.
Instead, it was Glossip’s behavior after the fact that came under scrutiny. For example, in the days after the murder, Glossip sold a number of furnishings — a futon, an entertainment system, two vending machines, and an aquarium, suggesting he was seeking to make a hasty getaway. At a preliminary hearing in April 1997, when Wood was asked why Glossip would sell off those items, she explained that her birthday was coming up in May and that she wanted breast implants.
According to Glossip, however, he’d actually sold his belongings to pay for an attorney. After he was first questioned by police about Van Treese’s murder on January 8, a friend cautioned him not to speak to them again without talking to a lawyer. Glossip says he heeded his friend’s advice. Between his recent paycheck, some money he’d been stashing away, and the profit from selling some possessions, he’d come up with just over $1,700 to pay an attorney. Indeed, he was picked up by police on January 9 as he exited the lawyer’s office.
The state later claimed that the $1,700 Glossip was carrying was roughly half the amount Sneed admitted to stealing from Van Treese’s car. In the official record, it is unclear exactly how much Van Treese had stashed under the car seat.
Glossip, who had no criminal record, was now under arrest for murder.
TO HEAR THE STATE tell it, Richard Glossip is a monster who seduced Sneed, an uneducated and hapless dolt, into committing murder for him. Prosecutors at Glossip’s first trial described Sneed to the jury as “a desperate sort of a 19-year-old young man,” one who was “homeless” and “depended on Glossip for everything,” including meals, which Glossip sometimes denied him. It is true that Sneed received no salary for working around the Best Budget Inn, only room and board. Although this arrangement was not uncommon at the motel, the state cast Sneed as suffering a unique kind of indentured servitude. In fact, Sneed, who had come to Oklahoma as part of a storm-chasing crew of roofers from Texas, himself testified that he had enough money left over to sustain his pot and meth habit. He also said he hustled to support himself and did not rely entirely on Glossip.
Regardless, the prosecution’s theory goes like this: Glossip’s job was on the ropes because of financial shortages at the Oklahoma City motel — proof that Glossip was embezzling funds. In order to avoid being fired, and to secure himself the additional responsibility of simultaneously managing Van Treese’s second motel property in Tulsa, he planned to murder his boss and then convince Donna to turn the business over to him.
The evidence to support this theory was weak. Basic accounting records entered into evidence purported to show a roughly $6,100 shortage at the Oklahoma City Best Budget Inn at the end of 1996. More detailed records, which had been requested by the defense, had apparently been destroyed in a flood. Moreover, Glossip had received a bonus in 11 out of 12 months in 1996, a reward for bringing in business above the monthly income baseline that Van Treese had set. Notably, none of the other motel employees or long-term guests provided any evidence that Van Treese was unhappy with Glossip’s performance or management of the motel.
Although the state eventually elicited testimony from witnesses suggesting that Sneed was a timid follower, and that Glossip was acting strangely while Van Treese was missing, there was little evidence to support its theory of the crime. Van Treese’s brother Kenneth, who took over operation of the motel after the murder, testified in 2004 that the motel’s financial shortages were “really insignificant amounts of money” and would not have worried Barry. The Oklahoma City motel, he said, was a “very profitable operation.”
Even so, two separate juries found the case against Glossip convincing enough to convict him and sentence him to die. Glossip’s first trial, in June 1998, was a disaster from the start. His defense attorney, Wayne Fournerat, tossed out alternative half-baked theories of the crime — despite the fact that Sneed had confessed to the killing — naming potential accomplices and alternate killers while examining witnesses, but without supplying any evidence to back up his insinuations. Twice during trial, including midway through the testimony of Billye Hooper, Fournerat told the judge it would be in Glossip’s best interest to take a blind plea — which Glossip, having already rejected a plea deal, again refused to do. “I don’t care what the circumstances say,” he told the judge. “I’m innocent.” Glossip turned down a similar offer of life with the possibility of parole in 2004, before his second trial.
In 2001, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals called the case against Glossip at the first trial “extremely weak.” Though it did not address the lack of evidence corroborating Sneed’s self-serving testimony, the court found Fournerat’s performance was so deficient that it alone provided sufficient grounds to overturn the conviction. Fournerat’s “conduct was so ineffective,” the court concluded, “that we have no confidence that a reliable adversarial proceeding took place.”
In particular, the court noted that Fournerat failed to introduce into evidence Sneed’s videotaped confession to police, and failed to use that crucial evidence to effectively cross-examine both Sneed and one of his interrogators, Detective Bob Bemo — a failure it described as standing out “as the most glaring deficiency in counsel’s performance.”
Had members of the jury watched the tape, they would have heard Bemo tell Sneed that before he decided whether or not to waive his rights and talk to the cops, he should consider the situation. “Before you make your mind up on anything,” Bemo cautioned him, “I want you to hear some of the things that we’ve got to say to you.” Sneed was read his rights, and then Bemo leaned in: “We know this involves more than just you, okay?” Sneed told Bemo that he didn’t “really know what to say about” what happened to Van Treese. Well, Bemo said, “everybody is saying you’re the one that did this and you did it by yourself and I don’t believe that. You know Rich is under arrest, don’t you?” No, Sneed said, he didn’t know that. “So he’s the one,” Bemo replied. “He’s putting it on you the worst.”
If Sneed didn’t want to talk about the involvement of anyone else, Bemo said he would be happy to walk Sneed into the jail and book him for Van Treese’s murder, “and you would be facing this thing on your own,” Bemo said. “And I don’t think it’s just you.”
Sneed obliged, confessing to the murder and blaming Glossip for it.
GLOSSIP’S SECOND TRIAL took place in 2004. This time he was represented by lawyers from the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. But they also failed to introduce Sneed’s interrogation — and, again, without the actual evidence to show jurors, their cross-examinations of Sneed and Bemo were weak at best. Yet after a second conviction and appeal, the same appeals court dismissed the appointed lawyers’ failure to use the confession evidence. This time around, the omission was considered not as a glaring oversight, but as a sound decision made as part of a “valid” defense strategy.
Magnifying the situation is the fact that Sneed’s story of the plotting and murder of Van Treese had morphed considerably between his first confession to police in 1997 and his testimony at Glossip’s first trial in June 1998. Sneed’s story changed yet again when he testified at Glossip’s second trial in May 2004. Each time Sneed told his tale, it became more elaborate, and included many new details that painted Glossip as a man hell-bent on murder.
At Glossip’s first trial, Sneed testified that he had been offered $7,000 to kill Barry Van Treese, but that the money he discovered under Van Treese’s car seat was only $4,000, which they ended up splitting. “The money never really was on my mind,” Sneed testified. “I was just going along with everything he said, basically.” By the second trial, in 2004, Sneed insisted that Glossip had offered him up to $10,000. Every time he talked to Glossip about killing Van Treese, Sneed said, the amount of money would increase.
When Sneed described his instructions from Glossip to police a week after the murder, he claimed only that he had been told to cover up the broken window with plexiglass. On the stand at both trials, he said he was also instructed to pick up some trash bags, a hacksaw and some muriatic acid. At the second trial, he further described how Glossip had explained that muriatic acid was used to clean swimming pools, and that pouring it on Van Treese’s corpse would help “eat up a lot of the tissue.”
Other new details appeared at the 2004 trial. When Glossip allegedly went back to Room 102 with him to make sure Van Treese was dead — and before instructing him to move the car — Sneed testified that Glossip “opened Mr. Van Treese’s wallet” and pulled out a $100 bill, putting it in his pocket. No forensic evidence backed up this claim. And although it was the middle of winter — the high that day was 37 degrees — Sneed also said that Glossip instructed him to turn the air conditioning in Room 102 “up full blast” after the murder, because the body was going to be in the room all day and Glossip thought this “would keep the body from building up any stench.”
Sneed also elaborated on his earlier claims that Glossip had pressured him on multiple occasions to kill Van Treese. When he confessed to police in 1997, Sneed said that he had met Van Treese only a couple of times, including when he had to fix the televisions in the motel. On the stand in 2004, he recounted an incident in which he had once gone down to the motel’s boiler room to fix a TV with Glossip and their boss. Van Treese, he said, was crouched down with his back to them, “and that’s when, you know, Glossip is constantly asking me, you know, why don’t I do it right now, why don’t I just take that little hammer and knock him over the head with it.” According to Sneed, Glossip told him to kill Van Treese five or six times, but then Van Treese appeared to get “paranoid,” and left the room.
Finally, at Glossip’s second trial in 2004, Sneed testified that he had no idea that Glossip had been arrested when he gave his confession to police in 1997, or even that Glossip had been questioned about the crime. But the transcript from the interrogation clearly shows that Detective Bemo told Sneed that Glossip was already under arrest.
ARGUABLY, NOBODY is more familiar with Sneed’s various tales and embellishments than G. Lynn Burch, an Oklahoma defense attorney who represented Glossip for several years. It was Burch’s work on the first appeal that led the appellate court to overturn Glossip’s conviction. After that, he was asked to stay on and represent Glossip at the second trial. Burch was ready for the challenge, because he understood what needed to be done to ensure a fair trial — introduce Sneed’s confession tape and meticulously attack the various inconsistencies in his statement. He felt that approach would clearly demonstrate that Sneed was lying and that Bemo had coached him into a confession that implicated an innocent man. He never got the opportunity to do so. Bemo did not respond to repeated emails requesting comment.
Instead, not long before the second trial was slated to start, the case’s new prosecutor, Connie Smothermon, announced in the judge’s chambers that she was adding Sneed’s lawyer, Gina Walker, to her witness list. Walker was expected to testify that Sneed told her he’d been threatened by Burch, who interviewed him in prison before the trial. Their interaction was not recorded. Sneed alleged that Burch threatened that “he should change his testimony because something bad could happen to him,” Burch told The Intercept.
Burch was furious. The accusation was false — and, he believes, clearly designed to yank him off the case, to turn him from an attorney who would vigorously defend his client into a witness who would have to take the stand to rebut Sneed’s lie. As a result, Burch recused himself. Glossip’s two remaining attorneys, Silas Lyman and Wayne Woodyard, apparently decided not to aggressively challenge Sneed, whom Burch calls the “defense’s star witness,” during cross examination. They also failed to introduce the confession video into evidence and made only ham-handed attempts at cross examination.
Lyman did not return calls requesting comment and Woodyard, through an assistant, also declined to comment on the case.
THE ISSUES RAISED by Glossip’s case are not isolated. Indeed, they plague the criminal justice system as a whole and can have dire consequences for any defendant facing a capital trial.
Deficient lawyering and the use of incentivized and potentially false witness testimony — or, more generally, “snitch” testimony — are especially prominent problems. The Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions found in 2005 that false testimony was the leading cause of known wrongful convictions during the current era of the death penalty. False testimony was implicated in nearly half the 111 death row exonerations at that time. A 2010 study undertaken by the Innocence Project revealed that deficient lawyering was a factor in 20 percent of 255 DNA exonerations. To date, 154 death row inmates have been exonerated, and a total of 330 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
As is often the case, these issues work together to make a wrongful conviction much more likely. When a defendant has a lousy lawyer, then problematic evidence or testimony, such as Sneed’s self-serving recitations, are far less likely to face true adversarial testing. “Because when you look at what goes wrong in these cases — eyewitness identification, prosecutorial misconduct, forensic error, you know, all these different things — if you had a good and zealous defense attorney then you could rectify these problems; you could catch them,” says Daniel Medwed, a professor of law at Northeastern University whose research focuses on wrongful convictions. “So it goes hand-in-glove: Every kind of government error to some extent is compounded by defense attorney error.”
There was no physical evidence linking Glossip to the crime.
Then there is the problem of what qualifies as corroboration. Even after two convictions, it is unclear what evidence exists, exactly, that corroborates Sneed’s account of the crime. Under Oklahoma law — theoretically, anyway — the testimony of an alleged accomplice must be corroborated by something that would connect the defendant to the crime itself — and not something that would merely corroborate that the crime happened. So, for example, if Sneed had said that Glossip took Van Treese’s wallet off of him after his death and that wallet was subsequently discovered in Glossip’s possession, that would certainly provide a measure of corroboration. That didn’t happen.
Requiring corroboration, however, is not a cure-all for the problem of highly charged incentivized testimony. When the courts consider nearly anything at all as corroborative, there is thus no meaningful standard — flawed forensics, for example, could be corroborative yet false. Or you could simply have some bare thread of circumstantial corroboration — a speculative connection, even — that, absent a meaningful standard, could be used to convict, and even to send someone to death row. Indeed, in Oklahoma, mere suspicion and fleeting connection is apparently enough corroboration to condemn a defendant to death.
To date, ten people have been exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row. Bad lawyering or questionable snitch testimony — and in some cases, both — have played a role in a number of these cases. Oklahoma’s first death row exoneree, Charles Ray Giddens, was sentenced to die for the killing of a grocery store clerk based on the uncorroborated account of an alleged accomplice, Johnnie Gray. An all-white jury deliberated 15 minutes before sending Giddens, who is black, to death row. Gray was never indicted for the murder. Giddens was cleared in 1981.
Better known, perhaps, is the 1982 case of Ronald Williamson (made famous by writer John Grisham in his book The Innocent Man), a former minor league baseball player who was sentenced to die for a rape-murder based on the account of a man named Glen Gore. Williamson’s conviction was ultimately overturned because of the ineffective assistance of his defense counsel. The lawyer was paid just $3,200 to defend Williamson. Ultimately, DNA connected Gore to the crime, and Williamson was finally exonerated in 1999.
In all, four of Oklahoma’s ten death row exonerations involved false snitch testimony, and in two cases the courts found ineffective lawyering, ratios that roughly match those found in the national studies.
AS HE AWAITS his fate today, Glossip admits that he made mistakes back in January 1997. He says he should not have ignored Sneed’s claims outside his apartment that morning. He especially regrets not telling the police about the exchange when he was first questioned the next day. Indeed, the police initially charged Glossip only with Accessory After the Fact, which his lawyers say was the only appropriate charge.
But Glossip continues to insist that he had nothing to do with Van Treese’s murder. He also describes an unsettling incident that points to Sneed, which he did not mention when he took the stand in 1998. Glossip says that the last time Van Treese was in Oklahoma City, roughly a month before he was murdered, Van Treese told Glossip that he’d awoken one morning to find Sneed standing in his room, staring at him. He said that Sneed quickly left. Glossip says he found this unnerving and suggested firing Sneed. Van Treese, he says, waved off the suggestion.
Perhaps most obvious of all, Glossip points out that there was simply no reason for him to commit murder. If he wanted money, he could have simply robbed Van Treese. After all, Glossip regularly handled and stored large amounts of cash for long periods of time before Van Treese came to collect. If he’d wanted to, Glossip said he simply could’ve walked out the door with the cash and never looked back.
As for wanting to keep his position at the Best Budget Inn, Glossip says he was never that desperate. “I can get a job,” Glossip told the prosecutor when taking the stand in 1998. “I wouldn’t hurt nobody for a job, ma’am. It isn’t worth it.”
Photo: 2007 Google Maps