Two weeks after Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Richard Glossip’s conviction, the court rejected Drummond’s request, clearing the way for Glossip’s execution on May 18.
“This court has thoroughly examined Glossip’s case from the initial direct appeal to this date,” the court’s five justices wrote. “Glossip has exhausted every avenue and we have found no legal or factual ground which would require relief in this case.”
The court’s move is a rebuke not only to the attorney general, who ordered a review of Glossip’s case earlier this year, but also to dozens of conservative Oklahoma legislators who have been fighting to stop Glossip’s execution over fears the state would kill an innocent man. The independent counsel who reviewed the case concluded that Glossip should receive a new trial — and that pushing for his execution did not “serve the interests of justice.”
Glossip was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese inside a seedy Best Budget Inn that Van Treese owned on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. No physical evidence linked Glossip, the motel’s live-in manager, 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 bludgeoning Van Treese to death 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.
Much of this evidence supports Glossip’s contention that Sneed — a chronic drug user who demonstrated unpredictable bouts of violence — carried out the crime and only later set up Glossip as the mastermind. New witnesses have come forward to counter the state’s portrayal of Sneed as a hapless dolt who took direction from Glossip, testifying that Sneed was cunning, manipulative, and quite capable of killing a man on his own.
Most recently, the state disclosed evidence that Sneed made misstatements at trial that undermined his credibility. 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.
Drummond highlighted these misstatements in his brief to the court seeking to vacate Glossip’s conviction. He argued that Sneed’s mental health disorder combined with his chronic drug use could have negatively affected “Sneed’s ability to properly recall key facts” at 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,” Drummond wrote.
In its opinion, the court dismissed Drummond’s conclusions and explained away Sneed’s misstatements by speculating that the star witness was “more than likely in denial of his mental health disorders.” The defense didn’t cross-examine Sneed about his diagnosis, the court suggested, because doing so would have demonstrated that he was “mentally vulnerable to Glossip’s manipulation and control.”
In rejecting Drummond’s request to vacate Glossip’s conviction, the court blithely concluded there was no reason to further stay Glossip’s execution. “Because Glossip has not made the requisite showing of likely success” in further appeals or “irreparable harm” from any denial of his claims, “he is not entitled to stay of execution,” the justices wrote.
“While I respect the Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion, I am not willing to allow an execution to proceed despite so many doubts,” Drummond said in a statement. “Ensuring the integrity of the death penalty demands complete certainty. I will thoroughly review the ruling and consider what steps should be taken to ensure justice.”
Glossip’s attorney Don Knight said it was “unconscionable for the court to attempt to force the state to move forward with this execution” given that the attorney general himself agreed that the state’s star witness had been discredited. “We cannot permit this longstanding injustice to go unchallenged and will be filing for review of this manifestly unjust ruling in the United States Supreme Court.”
In February, the Supreme Court intervened in another capital case, Escobar v. Texas, in which prosecutors’ arguments in favor of a death row defendant had been rejected by a similarly hostile appeals court. There, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ignored the Travis County district attorney’s decision to join the defendant in asking the court for a new trial. As in Glossip’s case, the prosecutor found that the original prosecution relied on an unsound foundation and that the conviction should be vacated. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the CCA “for further consideration in light of the confession of error by Texas.” Drummond cited the Escobar case in his filing with the Oklahoma court.
“We ask all Oklahomans who believe in justice to stand with Mr. Glossip, and the state of Oklahoma, to stop this wrongful judicial execution,” Knight said, “and grant Mr. Glossip the new trial he so rightly deserves.”