Why Is Oklahoma So Eager to Kill Richard Glossip?

Following intimidation tactics by the DA against new witnesses, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied Glossip’s last attempt to prove his innocence.

Photo: Google Maps

MICHAEL SCOTT WAS AT HOME last Tuesday in Rogers County, Oklahoma, just northeast of Tulsa, when his phone rang. On the line was a local law enforcement officer, who was standing outside. The officer ordered Scott out of his house, suggesting he use the back door lest he be humiliated in front of the neighbors. Scott did as he was told. He was then surrounded by a swarm of police, who arrested him at gunpoint.

Scott, who is white, 5 feet 7 inches tall, and 27 years old, had previously been arrested in March on minor charges including driving under the influence of alcohol and possession of a residual amount of marijuana. In lieu of jail time, he was ordered to pay fines and perform community service, but had kept up with neither. (Scott says he was injured in a car accident and cannot work. When police showed up at his house last week, he owed less than $200.)

But Scott says his arrest was not really about unpaid fines or community service. “We have to take you to talk to some people,” the police told him, according to a filing with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals last week. Scott says he was brought, in handcuffs, to an interrogation room at the Claremore police station, where he saw a folder with the following words written on it: “Richard Glossip” and “Stay.”

Richard Glossip is the death-row prisoner Oklahoma has been trying to kill all year, a man who insists he is innocent. A January execution date was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court in order to consider Glossip’s challenge of the state’s lethal injection protocol. (He lost.) Earlier this month, Glossip came within hours of the gurney, only to receive a two-week stay from the Court of Criminal Appeals so that it could consider new evidence.

A critical piece of that evidence was provided by Michael Scott.

Scott does not know Richard Glossip. But he once knew the man most responsible for sending him to death row: Justin Sneed, who is currently serving a life without parole sentence at a medium security prison. For 18 years Glossip has said he was framed by Sneed, who admitted to killing their boss, motel owner Barry Van Treese, but claimed Glossip paid him to do it. (Read The Intercept’s in-depth look at the case here.)

Although there was practically nothing to support his story, Sneed cut a deal with the state, testifying against Glossip in exchange for a life sentence. He did so twice: After Glossip’s conviction was overturned due to woefully ineffective lawyering at his first trial, he was tried and sentenced to death a second time, in 2004. Scott met Sneed not long after, in 2006, at Joseph Harp Correctional Facility. They had cells across from each other, and Scott remembered Sneed openly boasting about having escaped the death penalty by pinning his crime on Glossip.

Scott, who left prison in 2010, had never really considered that his experience behind bars could save a man’s life. But in August he saw an episode of Dr. Phil featuring Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean, who have waged a campaign to stop Glossip’s execution. “I realized just how important this information was,” Scott later explained. He contacted Glossip’s attorneys, who interviewed him, put what he said in an affidavit, and requested a stay of execution based in part on his recollections. At the last minute, on September 16, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals complied.

Many celebrated the temporary stay — more than 240,000 people have signed a petition to block Glossip’s execution. But for Scott it became a nightmare. Newspapers questioned his credibility and probed his criminal record, publishing his mug shot and details of his drug use. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater demanded to speak to Scott, even contacting his mother, while dismissing the new evidence as part of a “bullshit PR campaign” by anti-death penalty activists.

Scott repeatedly refused to speak to Prater. He was not a state’s witness or on trial himself. Nor did Scott owe Prater anything in his failure to abide by the terms of his suspended sentence; Scott’s arrest took place in Rogers County, two hours from Oklahoma City. Yet as Scott sat at the police station last Tuesday, it was Prater who entered the interrogation room. As Scott later described it, Prater made it clear that he had orchestrated his arrest. Now he would be forced to talk to him.

Scott’s account is contained in a filing by Glossip’s attorneys, who accused Prater of blatant witness intimidation. Scott told them that he was interrogated about his affidavit and that the questions “seemed designed to confuse or trick” him into contradicting himself. Scott said he did not wish to speak to Prater and the investigator who accompanied him — a man by the name of Eastbrook — without a lawyer, but he also did not feel free to refuse their questions. In fact, having heard reports about people dying in police custody, Scott said, he feared he even might be harmed. According to Scott, Prater and the investigator “even asked him questions about prescription medication that his mother is taking,” which Scott says they could only know about had they conducted a search of their house.

It wasn’t just Scott who was apparently targeted: A second man who came forward with similar information on the eve of Glossip’s last scheduled execution, Joseph Tapley, also found himself vulnerable to arrest when the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office moved to revoke his suspended sentence for a DUI, the same day his affidavit was filed, according to FOX 25 in Oklahoma City. Although it is unclear whether Tapley met with Prater, that deal has since been restored.

Prater has refused to say anything about Scott’s arrest. “The time will come when it will be clear to everyone that everything that the defense lawyers and their witnesses are saying are lies,” he said last week.

But Claremore Deputy Police Chief Charles Downum confirmed Scott’s arrest to FOX 25 reporter Phil Cross, later telling The Intercept that, as Scott claimed, investigators had first gone to the Walmart where Scott’s mother works to inquire about his whereabouts. Scott was arrested by multiple officers — “two in the front of the house and two in the back” — which is standard procedure in a warrant arrest, he said, especially as Scott had done time in prison for armed robbery. (Asked if the home was searched, Downum said, “I’m not sure.”) Claremore officers were not involved in Scott’s interrogation, Downum said, nor did he recognize the name of the investigator who Scott said accompanied Prater. He said he did not know whether Prater was involved, but he did tell The Intercept that Scott’s arrest was unusual in one sense. “There’s no interrogation on a warrant arrest most of the time,” he said. “There’s no reason to interrogate them.” In this case, “there may be things on the back end that are beyond our officers.”

Last week, the Rogers County District Attorney also confirmed to FOX 25’s Cross that Prater called its office prior to Scott’s arrest, but would not elaborate. In an email to The Intercept on Monday, a DA spokesperson denied that Scott’s arrest had anything to do with the Glossip case, saying that Prater had called simply asking to be notified if the office “had contact with Scott.” The spokesperson refused to confirm whether Prater himself had traveled to Rogers County to interrogate Scott. “You would need to ask DA Prater whether he did.” Prater did not reply to multiple emails from The Intercept.

IT WAS ONLY RECENTLY that David Prater enjoyed a reputation as a principled prosecutor. In 2009, he dropped charges against two men who had been sent to death row on the word of an unreliable witness, calling it his ethical duty. In 2012 Prater took the rare step of firing two of his own attorneys for withholding evidence in a first-degree murder trial, saying it was an “easy decision” due to the “gravity of their alleged ethical violation.” The next year he successfully prosecuted a veteran white police officer for shooting an unarmed black 18-year-old man in the back.

Such ethical conduct makes Prater’s approach to the Glossip case disturbing to many observers. While one local defense attorney defended Prater’s alleged pursuit of Scott as being “due diligence” in tracking down witnesses, others say the actions, if true, were clearly out of line. A practicing defense attorney with decades of experience in Oklahoma — who once attended fundraisers for Prater, and who asked not to be identified because he still tries cases against him — said that at the very least Prater’s rhetoric in the case has been “improper.” While the attorney did not know enough about Scott’s arrest last week to comment on it, he said that the description harkened back to the kind of vindictive tactics of Prater’s legendary predecessor and former boss, “Cowboy Bob” Macy.

Indeed, Prater’s favorable reputation in Oklahoma can be attributed at least partly to his contrast with Macy, who made the initial decision to seek the death penalty for Glossip and who famously sent 54 people to death row. Known for his fire-and-brimstone closing arguments, Macy was popular among voters — he was reelected five times — but notorious among defense attorneys. He was often criticized by the courts. A 1999 profile in the Chicago Tribune was scathing: “Macy has cheated. He has lied. He has bullied. Even when a man’s life is at stake, Macy has spurned the rules of a fair trial, concealing evidence, misrepresenting evidence, or launching into abusive, improper arguments that had nothing to do with the evidence, according to appellate rulings condemning his tactics.”

Prater, a former police officer, worked for Macy from 1993 until 2001. When Macy retired that year amid a scandal that made national news, Prater became the public face of the Oklahoma City DA’s office as it weathered the revelation that a police chemist had grossly mishandled forensic evidence over the course of more than 20 years. The FBI launched an investigation, recommending a review of any cases in which the chemist’s work was “significant to the outcome of the trial.” When it was revealed that at least 10 of these cases had led to executions, Prater told the media that he had personally examined the convictions and was confident they were sound. “The evidence is overwhelming, absent any involvement of any police chemist,” Prater said in April 2001. “No reasonable jury wouldn’t have convicted these prisoners and sentenced them to death.”

“All of these people have been scrutinized over and over in the state and federal appellate courts,” Prater added. “There are safeguards.”

TODAY, PRATER USES SIMILAR rhetoric to defend Glossip’s conviction, even as additional questions have emerged — about evidence destroyed by police, about faulty testimony from the state’s medical examiner. In August, Prater was quoted saying that he had personally examined the evidence in the case two years ago and “after reviewing the evidence myself, I do not have any concerns as to the guilt of Mr. Glossip.” Prater’s response to new witnesses like Tapley and Scott has been to dismiss them as “inherently suspect.”

“Surely the affidavit of an admitted liar, drug abuser, and thief, containing inadmissible hearsay, prepared nearly a decade after the events alleged, does not rise to the level of … clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence,” the state wrote in its response to Glossip’s motion for an evidentiary hearing last week. To Don Knight, one of Glossip’s attorneys, that logic undercuts the state’s own case, particularly as Sneed was an admitted meth user who reportedly stole to support his habit. “They take aim at Tapley and Scott, saying these are drug users and they’re simply not to be believed,” he told The Intercept. “Yet they want to kill a man based on that very same history.”

Prater’s aggressive pursuit of Tapley and Scott also belies his claims that their words are meaningless. If it is true that Prater simply wants to know the truth behind their claims, as he has said, Knight told The Intercept, “then the place to sort it all out is the courtroom, not an interrogation room with a handcuffed witness.”

On Monday, with his client’s execution two days away, Knight released a response to an exclusive interview recently given by Justin Sneed to The Frontier, an Oklahoma-based website. In the roughly 25-minute conversation, Sneed contradicts previous versions of his story and introduces new details that were never before mentioned to police or on the stand at either trial. For example, Sneed denies knowing what would motivate Glossip to want Van Treese dead; yet he has previously given numerous motives over the years, among them Glossip’s supposed fear that he would be fired from his job, and his ostensible desire to take over the Best Budget Inn.

Pointing out the numerous inconsistencies between Sneed’s new account and his previous statements, Knight used the state’s own words to argue that its star witness against Glossip was himself inherently suspect. “Sneed continues to lie and demonstrate his inability to keep his many lying stories straight,” Knight wrote. “Oklahoma must not execute Mr. Glossip based solely upon the words of this admitted liar, drug abuser, and thief.”

Moments later, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals released a ruling denying a new hearing for Glossip. His “new” evidence, the justices wrote, “merely expands on theories” raised in previous appeals. “Glossip merely wants more time so he can develop evidence similar” to what he has raised before. The court was sharply divided, 3-2, with two judges, in separate dissents, noting that Glossip’s trial was “deeply flawed,” and that “the state no has no interest in executing an actually innocent man.”

Glossip’s execution is now set to proceed as scheduled on Wednesday, September 30, at 3 p.m.

Reporter Jordan Smith contributed to this report.

Caption: Best Budget Inn on South Council Road in Oklahoma City, the location of the murder of Barry Van Treese. 

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