Three weeks ago, Richard Glossip was contemplating a possible future outside prison walls. In an extraordinary move, the Oklahoma attorney general had filed a motion with the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals asking that Glossip’s conviction and death sentence be overturned. If granted, the request would send his case back to the district court for a new trial — or a plea deal. After more than two decades in prison for a crime he insists he did not commit, Glossip was imagining life with his wife in Oklahoma City.
But in a stunning rebuke, the court rejected the attorney general’s request, triggering the 35-day protocol that precedes an execution. Perhaps most critical: a hearing on April 26 before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, whose members are empowered to recommend clemency to the governor, serving as a final check against a wrongful execution.
There was every reason to expect the board would vote to spare Glossip’s life. Among the witnesses who appeared on Glossip’s behalf on Wednesday was Attorney General Gentner Drummond himself, along with prominent Oklahoma lawmakers who have come to believe in Glossip’s innocence.
Yet in another stunning reversal of fortune, the board voted to deny clemency. Barring intervention by the courts or Gov. Kevin Stitt, Glossip will be executed by lethal injection on May 18.
“It’s horrifying,” Don Knight, Glossip’s lead attorney, said. But “we’re not done, by a long shot.”
Glossip was twice tried and sentenced to death for the January 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 34-year-old live-in manager, to the crime. Instead, the case against him was built almost exclusively on the testimony of 19-year-old Justin Sneed, who worked as a handyman at the motel. Sneed admitted to bludgeoning Van Treese to death but claimed it was all Glossip’s idea. Prosecutors claimed Glossip killed Van Treese in a scheme to take over the low-rent motel and painted Sneed as a meek dolt who would do anything Glossip asked of him. In exchange for testifying against Glossip, Sneed avoided facing the death penalty and was sentenced to life without parole. Glossip has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and over the years, evidence of his wrongful conviction has steadily mounted.
Counter to the state’s fanciful narrative, the evidence supports Glossip’s contention that Sneed — a chronic drug user with a penchant for unpredictable bouts of violence — initially planned to rob Van Treese, killed him when the plan went sideways, and then later, during a highly suggestive police interrogation, named Glossip as the mastermind behind the crime. Witnesses who were ignored by police and prosecutors have since come forward with evidence that Sneed was cunning, manipulative, and quite capable of killing a man on his own.
Knight has spent nearly a decade investigating and presenting to the court new evidence that undercuts Glossip’s conviction. Still, at every turn, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has willfully ignored the myriad problems with the case — including prosecutorial misconduct and the state’s destruction of evidence. That same evidence, meanwhile, has led a contingent of conservative, pro-death penalty lawmakers to advocate on Glossip’s behalf over fears the state might execute an innocent man.
The State Got Away With It
The clemency hearing took place at the Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center, a women’s jail complex in Northeast Oklahoma City. The fluorescent-lit room was packed compared to most clemency hearings, with seven rows of chairs assigned to attendees in advance. As in all such proceedings, victims’ family members sat on one side of the room, alongside representatives of the state, while advocates for Glossip sat on the other. Unlike most hearings, both sections included current and former elected officials, most notably Drummond, who was there representing the state and advocating for clemency, the first time an Oklahoma attorney general has ever done so.
“If the defense would’ve destroyed that box of evidence, there would have been charges brought against them. But the state seemingly got away with it.”
Among the most conspicuous attendees was former Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office sent Glossip to death row. Before his retirement in January, Prater aggressively defended Glossip’s conviction, intimidating witnesses who came forward with new evidence in 2015 and accusing Glossip of waging a “bullshit PR campaign.” Prater also previously targeted the parole board for recommending clemency in other cases, accusing members of having an anti-death penalty bias. Wearing a dark pinstriped suit, an American flag pin, and a permanent scowl, Prater sat in the fifth row alongside prosecutors from other parts of the state. While he did not speak before the board, Prater shook his head as witnesses described the state’s destruction of evidence and other prosecutorial misconduct.
Each side had 40 minutes to present their case, followed by remarks by the Van Treese family and Glossip himself. A large digital clock faced the speakers, while TV monitors faced the board. One of the five board members, Richard Smothermon, was absent, having recused himself due to the fact that his wife was the prosecutor who sent Glossip to death row.
Knight told the board that Glossip grew up in a chaotic household where family members struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Unlike a number of his 15 siblings, Glossip managed to avoid running afoul of the law, and after dropping out of school, he worked hard to build a quiet and successful life for himself. He became a manager at Domino’s Pizza before turning to management of a string of motels. “It may not seem like much, but for a guy with a seventh-grade education … it was pretty good,” Knight told the board. The idea that Glossip was scheming to take over the Best Budget Inn was inconceivable, Knight said. It was a fiction dreamed up by Sneed, “a man who now everyone, even the state, admits is a liar.”
“People rarely begin a life of crime at 34,” Knight went on. In contrast, Sneed had a long history of criminal behavior before he killed Van Treese at 19, including threatening to kill his middle school teacher. “The worst thing on Rich Glossip’s record? A traffic ticket.”
Republican state lawmakers described how they had come to believe in Glossip’s innocence. Each said he was skeptical at first; they didn’t believe that an innocent person could wind up on death row. But as they learned more about the case, and new evidence continued to emerge, they concluded that Glossip’s conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
Central to their conclusion was the work of law firm Reed Smith, which undertook a pro bono investigation into the case at the behest of a larger group of lawmakers led by Republican Rep. Kevin McDugle. Reed Smith spent more than a year on its investigation, interviewed more than 40 witnesses, and gathered records from multiple state agencies, producing five reports that paint the clearest picture yet of Glossip’s wrongful conviction. McDugle told the board that he asked the investigators to go where the facts took them. “I simply want them to find the truth in this case,” he said.
“In reading their findings, I was sickened that something like this could happen in the state of Oklahoma,” McDugle said. “Their investigation concluded that based on the complete record, old and new evidence, no reasonable jury hearing it all would have convicted Glossip of murder for hire.” McDugle was especially disturbed by the state’s destruction of a box of evidence before Glossip’s second trial in 2004, including the motel’s financial records and crime scene evidence that could have been tested for DNA. “If the defense would’ve destroyed that box of evidence, there would have been charges brought against them. But the state seemingly got away with it.”
Justin Jackson, a political ally of the governor’s, struck a more personal note. He said that he’d gotten to know Glossip during visits to death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Today he describes him as a friend and “brother in Christ.” “Rich has never wavered once in his claim of innocence,” Jackson said. He held up a painting of a hummingbird that Glossip made for Jackson’s mother, who was dying of cancer. Glossip said that for him, the hummingbird represented freedom from death row — but for Jackson’s mother, he hoped it would represent freedom from pain and suffering. When his mother died in 2020, Jackson said, “Rich had no way of knowing of my mom’s passing but by happenstance he called me later that morning. And he spent the next 30 minutes consoling me.”
An Unprecedented Hearing
When it was the state’s turn to present its case to the board, Drummond began by acknowledging each speaker, along with Van Treese’s loved ones. “I know that this has been an extremely difficult process for the family to endure.”
“I’m not aware of anytime in our history that an attorney general has appeared before this board and argued for clemency.”
“I want to acknowledge how unusual it is for the state to support a clemency application of a death row inmate,” Drummond said. “I’m not aware of anytime in our history that an attorney general has appeared before this board and argued for clemency. I’m also not aware of any time in the history of Oklahoma when justice would require it. Ultimately that is why we are here.” As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Drummond said, it was his duty to consider “what justice is for the state of Oklahoma.” That’s what led him to finally release evidence that had never been turned over to Glossip’s legal team. It’s also what led him to launch an investigation of his own into the case.
Christina Vitale, a lawyer who was part of the Reed Smith investigation, presented a PowerPoint laying out critical new evidence that had come to light in the past year. This included multiple letters from Sneed to his attorney expressing a desire to recant his testimony against Glossip. It also included the contents of a box of evidence belonging to the district attorney’s office, which was turned over to investigators in January. The box contained prosecutors’ handwritten notes revealing that after Van Treese’s murder, Sneed had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium to manage it by a psychiatrist who evaluated him at the Oklahoma City Jail. At trial, Sneed denied that the evaluation ever took place.
Drummond had highlighted Sneed’s misstatements in his brief to the Court of Criminal Appeals 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.
“The state of Oklahoma can extract its pound of flesh from Richard Glossip, but I believe it has already extracted three pounds.”
Sneed lying about his diagnosis and prosecutors’ failure to correct the record were key factors for Rex Duncan, a former prosecutor whom Drummond retained to conduct the second investigation of Glossip’s conviction. Duncan was the last witness for the state. “This is a first for me, to agree with the defense attorney that their client deserves clemency,” he said. After 600 hours spent reviewing the case, Duncan said, he concluded that “Richard Glossip did not receive a fair trial and the state of Oklahoma cannot stand behind his conviction. Further, the state of Oklahoma cannot stand behind an execution given what has been discovered.”
“If anybody deserved to be on death row, it’s Justin Sneed,” Duncan said. “Richard Glossip has been on death row for most of his adult life, has been served his last meal three times and been within minutes of execution. The state of Oklahoma can extract its pound of flesh from Richard Glossip, but I believe it has already extracted three pounds.”
Enough Is Enough
When it was time for the Van Treese family to speak, their message was clear: They wanted their ordeal to be over and felt betrayed by the state’s call for clemency. Donna Van Treese, Barry’s widow, echoed her testimony from Glossip’s 2014 clemency hearing, describing the impact of her husband’s murder and the lasting trauma for her children. “We do not feel justly represented today,” she told the board. Barry’s son, Derek Van Treese, decried the years of investigation and publicity that had made Glossip’s case famous. “This case has been pushed from being a legal matter to being a political issue; has been pushed from the court of law to the court of public opinion,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
“Today has been a travesty,” Van Treese’s sister, Alana Van Treese Mileto, said. While she acknowledged that Drummond’s concerns should be considered, “at the same time, this is so one-sided.” The state’s presentation “feels like a giant stab in the back, to be honest with you.”
Asked if Drummond’s office had contacted the family prior to the hearing, Donna Van Treese spoke indignantly of a phone conversation with the attorney general. Drummond told her that he believed Glossip was guilty, she said. In response, Drummond repeated what he had previously stated: His personal belief was that Glossip was guilty of “at least accessory after the fact” for his failure to tell detectives about statements Sneed made following the murder. “More likely than not he’s guilty of murder,” he said. “But I do not believe that the evidence presents that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” He maintained that the board should recommend clemency. “I believe it would be a grave injustice to allow the execution of a man whose trial was plagued by many errors.”
Glossip was given 20 minutes to speak on his own behalf. He spoke for less than three, appearing by Zoom from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He wore maroon prison scrubs, and his wrists were handcuffed together, making it difficult for him to raise his hand to be sworn in by the board chair. Glossip dabbed at his eyes with a tissue while delivering remarks he had prepared on sheets of white paper. He told the Van Treese family that he was sorry for everything they’d been through. And he thanked all the people who had supported him, including McDugle, Jackson, and Drummond.
His voice cracking with emotion, Glossip asked the board to grant him clemency. “I’m not a murderer, and I don’t deserve to die for this.”
Unlike Glossip’s previous clemency hearing in 2014, where board members challenged his account of what happened the day Barry Van Treese died, this time the board asked no questions. Instead, they announced a 10-minute break to deliberate.
After several hours of careful, comprehensive presentations by advocates for Glossip and representatives of the state laying out all the reasons that clemency should be granted, the end was shockingly abrupt. Board members quickly announced their votes: two votes for clemency, followed by two votes against. Under the rules of the Pardon and Parole Board, a tie is weighted in favor of the no votes, meaning the default is denying clemency and blessing an execution.
The Van Treese family cheered, cried, and hugged upon hearing the vote, gathering before a line of TV cameras. Everyone else filed out of the room.
Knight, Glossip’s lawyer, vowed to pursue every remaining avenue to save his client’s life. On Wednesday afternoon, he filed an unopposed stay of execution with the U.S. Supreme Court. He is also challenging the makeup of the board, arguing that the fifth board member, Smothermon, should have been replaced to avoid a tie that would result in a denial of clemency. Knight also plans to challenge the appellate court’s ruling dismissing Drummond’s request to vacate Glossip’s conviction. Finally, he said, he would ask the governor for a reprieve to allow the legal process to take its course, “because the execution of an innocent man would be an irreversible injustice.”
In the meantime, Glossip faces the torment of yet another execution countdown. As his wife, Lea, told the board, they have already undertaken the excruciating task of planning for his state-sanctioned murder: deciding who will attend the execution, what Glossip will choose for his final meal, and where he will be buried. “He is now on the brink of his ninth execution date, all for a crime that he did not commit,” she said. “This ordeal has been absolutely psychologically terrorizing.”
Leaving the hearing, McDugle called the outcome “ridiculous.” “Oklahoma’s got some systemic problems with the judicial system,” he said. “Any reasonable person who would have been in that room would have voted yes for clemency.” Although McDugle has always maintained that he supports capital punishment, he reiterated what he has previously said about the case: If Glossip’s execution is carried out, “I will fight against the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma.”