Citing the duty of a prosecutor to seek justice, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond asked the state’s highest criminal court to vacate Richard Glossip’s conviction on Thursday and send his case back to district court. It is a stunning turn of events in a case that the state has aggressively defended for years. Glossip, now 60, has come perilously close to execution multiple times.
“The state has carefully considered the voluminous record in the case, the constitutional principles at stake, and the interests of justice,” Drummond wrote in a filing with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. “While the state has previously opposed relief for Glossip, it has changed its position based on a careful review of the new information that has come to light.”
The move by Drummond signals the possible end of a decadeslong saga that began on January 7, 1997, with the discovery of Barry Van Treese’s body inside Room 102 of a seedy motel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
Glossip, the live-in manager of the Best Budget Inn, was twice tried and sentenced to death for the murder of Van Treese, the motel’s owner. No physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime. Instead, the case against him was built almost exclusively on the testimony of a 19-year-old maintenance man named Justin Sneed, who admitted to carrying out the brutal killing but said it was all Glossip’s idea. In exchange for testifying against Glossip, Sneed avoided the death penalty and was sentenced to life without parole. Glossip has always insisted on his innocence, and over the last decade, evidence that he was wrongly convicted has steadily mounted.
The Intercept was the first national news outlet to thoroughly examine Glossip’s innocence claim. That investigation, published in 2015, brought widespread attention to the case and prompted a four-part docuseries by Joe Berlinger released in 2017. Last year, The Intercept’s coverage included exclusive interviews with key witnesses who were never contacted by police or prosecutors; the information they provided cast further doubt on Sneed’s account and bolstered Glossip’s innocence claim.
Glossip’s case also caught the attention of a bipartisan group of Oklahoma lawmakers, many of them rock-ribbed pro-death penalty conservatives, who became alarmed that the state planned to kill an innocent man. They sought out the law firm Reed Smith LLP, which conducted an independent investigation into the case. Since June 2022, the firm has released five reports, each containing bombshell revelations that paint a clear picture of Glossip’s wrongful conviction.
Yet until recently, it seemed unfathomable that the state of Oklahoma would concede that Glossip’s conviction was fatally flawed. Despite the ongoing revelations, courts and previous prosecutors refused to seriously consider the evidence pointing to his innocence. Things began to change course after Drummond took office in January. Almost immediately, Drummond slowed the state’s frenzied execution schedule and appointed special counsel to review Glossip’s case.
The appointed counsel, Rex Duncan, ultimately concluded that Glossip’s conviction and sentence should be set aside. In a 19-page report, Duncan touched on problems with the case that Glossip’s attorneys have been trying to draw attention to for years — including the state’s repeated failure to turn over key evidence to the defense and its destruction of additional evidence that cast doubt on the already flimsy case.
“The state’s murder case against Glossip was not particularly strong and would have been, in my view, weaker if full discovery had been provided,” Duncan wrote.
Duncan found that Sneed, the state’s star witness, made misstatements at trial that undermined his credibility. While it has long been known that Sneed was a heavy drug user at the time of Van Treese’s murder, evidence only recently disclosed to Glossip’s attorneys revealed that while he was in jail, Sneed was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium to manage it. However, when he testified against Glossip, Sneed denied ever seeing a psychiatrist and said he had no idea why he’d been given lithium. Both Duncan’s report and Drummond’s court filing highlight the significance of this misstatement, noting that Glossip’s attorneys should have been made aware of the full scope of Sneed’s diagnosis.
“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 the court filing. “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,” he wrote.
The Oklahoma Court of Appeals, which has been unsympathetic to Glossip’s appeals for years, has little choice but to agree with Drummond that the case should be sent back to Oklahoma City for further consideration. The former elected district attorney there, David Prater, was particularly hostile to Glossip’s innocence claims and called efforts to stop his execution a “bullshit PR campaign.” Prater has since retired and was recently replaced by Vicki Behenna, a former federal prosecutor and head of the Oklahoma Innocence Project.
In the meantime, Glossip’s execution date — his ninth — is still on the calendar for May 18. Drummond has joined Glossip’s attorney Don Knight in asking the court to grant a stay.
In a phone call, Knight was cautiously hopeful that the client he’s fought so tirelessly to save from execution may instead be freed. When he told Glossip that the attorney general had asked that his conviction be overturned, Glossip was “ecstatic,” Knight said. “It was like this moment washed over his face where he recognized that after all these years and after everything he’s been through, he was finally getting someone to listen to him.”