Richard Glossip Is Set to Die Wednesday, as D.A. Calls New Evidence a “Bullshit PR Campaign”

The closer Oklahoma comes to killing Richard Glossip, the more reason there is to believe the state is about to execute an innocent man.

Richard Glossip, December 2014 (Janelle Stecklein) Photo: Janelle Stecklein

THE CLOSER THE STATE of Oklahoma comes to killing Richard Glossip, the more evidence emerges to suggest the state is preparing to murder an innocent man.

On Monday, Glossip’s legal team released dozens of pages of documents that cast new doubt on his already questionable conviction. At a press conference in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol, defense attorney Don Knight called on Gov. Mary Fallin to issue a stay of execution in order to consider the materials, which include newly obtained affidavits from people with varying connections to the case. The collection provides new context to the flawed case against Glossip, lending credence to his claims of innocence and further exposing leads police failed to pursue and information jurors never heard at either of his two trials. Yet thus far the state appears unmoved. On Monday Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater called the press conference — which included famed anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean — “a bullshit PR campaign.” Glossip remains set to die at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

As The Intercept has reported, Glossip was twice tried and sentenced to die for the 1997 killing of his boss, Barry Van Treese, in a grisly crime the state prosecuted as a murder for hire. His conviction hinged on the testimony of a man named Justin Sneed, who admitted he beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, but claimed that Glossip, his supervisor at the time, coerced him into committing the crime in exchange for money and job security. Sneed said Glossip was afraid Van Treese was going to fire him from his position managing the Best Budget Inn, the seedy Oklahoma City motel where they worked, so Glossip convinced Sneed to kill him.

But there was no corroborating evidence to back up Sneed’s story — no physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime — and transcripts show how Oklahoma City police detectives steered Sneed toward implicating Glossip during his interrogation. Sneed’s story has evolved considerably over the years — today there is mounting evidence to show that Sneed, afraid of being sentenced to die, was compelled to point the finger at Glossip in order to save himself. Particularly damning are the words of Sneed’s own grown daughter, O’Ryan Justine Sneed, who last year wrote a letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board asking it to spare Glossip, saying that her dad was considering recanting his testimony, which now threatened the life of an innocent man.

Justine Sneed has refused to talk about the case beyond the letter, even as Sneed’s own mother has since raised doubts about the state’s official story. But as Glossip’s execution nears, others have been emboldened to speak out. The affidavits released by Glossip’s lawyers on Monday come from individuals who undermine the claims of some of the prosecution’s key players — not only of Sneed, but also those of the police detectives who elicited Sneed’s confession.

One affidavit comes from 27-year-old Michael G. Scott, who after watching an August episode of Dr. Phil that focused on the case, contacted Glossip’s attorney Don Knight. Scott describes how he met Justin Sneed in 2006, while incarcerated at Joseph Harp Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Lexington, Oklahoma. (State records confirm that Scott was first convicted and jailed in Oklahoma just before his 18th birthday, in 2005. He left prison in 2010.) Scott says he lived in a cell across from Sneed, who spoke “on more than one occasion” about how he had implicated Glossip in Van Treese’s murder in order to save himself.

“Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river,” Scott told a private investigator. He recalled a specific instance when Sneed was “fixing some food, and laughing with (other prisoners) about setting Richard Glossip up for a crime Richard didn’t do.” Scott said he never told anyone what he heard — “Honestly, there seemed to be many other things that I saw or heard that were much worse” — but upon seeing the case on TV this summer, “I realized just how important this information was,” and decided to come forward.

Another affidavit comes from a man named Johnny Lombardi, who worked as a defense attorney in Oklahoma between 2006 and 2013 and caught wind of Glossip’s impending execution while doing post-conviction work on a separate, unrelated case. That case involves a man named Marty Williams, currently serving life without parole for a 1991 murder in Oklahoma City, a crime he swears he did not commit. The lead police detectives in Williams’ case were the same pair who got Justin Sneed to implicate Richard Glossip in the murder of Barry Van Treese: Oklahoma City Police Detectives Bob Bemo and William Cook.

In his affidavit, Lombardi says Williams told him Bemo and Cook interrogated him using “coercive techniques,” threatening him with the death penalty and refusing to let him use the restroom to the point where he “was forced to urinate on himself.” Lombardi further says that, according to Williams, Bemo and Cook had previously tried to blame him for a different unsolved murder years earlier, “despite the fact there was neither any physical evidence or direct witness observation” to link him to the crime. Finally, Lombardi describes a recent interview with a different incarcerated individual, who claimed that Bemo and Cook had “a reputation for police tactics in that neighborhood in order to obtain confessions” and that Williams had been wrongfully convicted — “set up by the police.”

Regardless of happened to Williams, of course, his claims do not prove police misconduct in Glossip’s case. And it remains unclear why Bemo or Cook would want to pin the murder of Barry Van Treese on Glossip when they already had a suspect in custody, Sneed, who admitted he carried it out. (Bemo has not responded to multiple emails and Cook is deceased.) But Lombardi’s affidavit is bolstered by Dr. Richard Leo, PhD, an expert on police interrogation tactics who has written extensively about false confessions and who reviewed Sneed’s interrogation transcripts. In a 13-page affidavit signed on September 9, Dr. Leo stressed that the notion that Glossip had masterminded the murder “first came from investigators, not Justin Sneed.” The transcripts show how police “feed Justin Sneed their theory that Richard Glossip was the mastermind of this homicide.” Such tactics, he states, “are substantially likely to increase the eliciting of false statements.”

THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA has repeatedly said that, regardless of any last-minute claims by his supporters, the courts have had their say in the case of Richard Glossip. But the same could be said for the 10 people who have been exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row — as The Intercept reported this summer, four of them were sent to die partly on the basis of false snitch testimony. What’s more, as in many such cases, much of the evidence now coming to light never made it to court. They are bits and pieces of information that should have been uncovered, if not by police in 1997, then certainly by Glossip’s defense attorneys before trial.

One critical component comes from a man who could have undermined Sneed’s credibility on the stand by showing that Sneed lied about the extent of his drug use in the months leading up to Van Treese’s murder. An affidavit signed by a former drug dealer named Richard Barrett challenges the state’s characterization of Sneed as a hapless kid who was entirely under Glossip’s control, suggesting a more logical basis for why Sneed might have killed Van Treese.

In its opening argument at Glossip’s 2004 trial, the state cast Sneed as a simple drifter — a man of limited intelligence who “didn’t want money or need money,” as prosecutor Connie Smothermon told the jury. Sneed, who first arrived in Oklahoma City as part of a roofing crew from Texas, admitted on the stand that he quit that job because of his burgeoning drug use, but he said he just used marijuana — “and a little bit of crank.”

But according to Barrett, who says he dealt drugs several times per week at the Best Budget Inn, Sneed regularly shot meth with a needle in Room 102, the same room where he would later kill Van Treese. Barrett said he saw Sneed’s drug use firsthand — and that he often saw him “tweaking,” a sign that someone is high on meth. He also said that Sneed was stealing from the motel, its parking lot, and the surrounding area, in order to pay for his meth habit. Sneed traded everything from food stamps to car stereos to a nickel-plated .38 handgun for the drug, Barrett states. Such thieving was common among the addicts he knew, Barrett adds, saying many would “do anything to get more of the drug, even kill.”

“Based on my own experience,” Barrett says in his affidavit, “I believe Justin Sneed was addicted to methamphetamine in a bad way.”

Barrett’s affidavit also introduces another regular at the Best Budget Inn who was apparently never questioned by police (the Oklahoma City Police Department refused to release its records in the case): Richard Glossip’s brother, Bobby, who facilitated Barrett’s drug dealing at the motel. The Glossip brothers, Barrett said, did not seem to get along. Richard had nothing to do with Bobby’s drug business; when Richard would come to Room 102, “He mostly came to tell us to quiet down.”

Glossip has told The Intercept that while “Bobby and me used to be pretty close when we were younger,” they were not at the time of the murder. Glossip knew Bobby was dealing drugs, including to Sneed. “Unfortunately, my brother was the one selling to him,” Glossip said this summer.

While Sneed’s drug addiction does not itself provide a basis for murder, Barrett’s description of meth users as paranoid thieves who can turn violent on a dime was affirmed by San Francisco psychiatrist Pablo Stewart, who provided yet another affidavit to Glossip’s legal team. Stewart said that when used intravenously, as Barrett claims Sneed did regularly, meth produces symptoms such as those “consistent” with a person suffering from a psychotic episode — they become “prone to frenzied actions that can lead to ‘overkill’ behaviors.” In one of his first versions of the story upon being interrogated by police, Sneed said he had only meant to knock out Barry Van Treese in order to steal money from him — not kill him. Even if Sneed was trying to downplay his culpability to police, Stewart states in his affidavit that he considers this to be a plausible scenario — “a person under the influence of methamphetamine, or suffering from the psychotic symptoms caused by long term use, will use a baseball bat and beat a victim to death in a frenzy, even if the intent is just to knock that person out with one blow.”

If such expert opinion sounds a bit too neatly tailored now, it is precisely the sort of testimony that should have been presented by Glossip’s attorneys at trial. Barrett, too, might have been a critical witness. He says he failed to come forward until now because he had heard that his fingerprints were found in Room 102 and he feared he would be implicated in the murder. It was a call from his own mother that convinced him to finally tell Glossip’s lawyers what he knew.

WITH GLOSSIP’S EXECUTION one day away, a coalition of supporters spent Tuesday in Oklahoma City, holding a vigil and publicly urging Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to spare Glossip’s life. Glossip’s defense team has sent a letter to Fallin outlining additional evidence they are currently seeking in order to clear their client, and asking for a 60-day stay in order to pursue it.

“Since we began investigating this case,” they write, “and once publicly highlighting it, we have received tip after tip — telephone messages at 1:00 a.m., and emails at all hours. Such information is still pouring in, but we have not been able to investigate all of it.” Their fear, they say, is that a critical tip “may later prove innocence, but too late.”

“We respectfully request the opportunity to avoid that tragedy.”

The Next to Die, an initiative by the Marshall Project, provides a countdown to upcoming executions.

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