Two weeks before he was scheduled to die at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Richard Glossip packed his belongings in a box. Of the personal items that could fit in his death row cell, these were his treasured possessions: letters, cards, and most importantly, photos of his wife, Lea, which he’d carefully taken off the wall. For the past few years, she’d been his lifeline, a source of strength and comfort and his daily portal to the outside world. Over the phone, he kept her company as she drank her coffee in the morning, drove to and from her law school classes, and watched the evening news.
After the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board denied Glossip’s clemency request last month, Lea was the person he turned to. “I called her the second I got back to my cell,” he said. “I told the guards, ‘I need to get back there.’ … Whenever things get really tough for me, and I feel at my lowest point, I know that I can talk to Lea and she can pick me up from that.”
Now they faced a dreaded ritual they’d already confronted multiple times: preparing for Glossip’s transfer to Death Watch, one of the final stages of the state’s death penalty protocol. Their last contact visit was scheduled for Friday, May 5 — one more chance to hug, kiss, and hold hands. Afterward, Lea would take Glossip’s belongings home, while he prepared to be moved to a holding cell adjacent to the execution chamber.
Lea arrived earlier than usual that day, around 9 a.m. She was accompanied by the legendary anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, Glossip’s spiritual adviser. Three other high-profile advocates joined them: Republican state Reps. Kevin McDugle and Justin Humphrey, as well as GOP politico Justin Jackson. With Glossip’s May 18 execution date looming, the visit was more of a strategy session than a series of goodbyes. No one was ready to give up.
Around noon, Sister Helen and the politicians decided to leave in order to give Lea and Glossip some privacy, or whatever passed for privacy in a crowded visiting room. But first, they all stepped into the hallway to take some photos — a privilege not usually afforded to the men on death row, which the interim warden had arranged himself. In one photo, Lea stood in front of her husband wearing a wide smile, clasping his cuffed hand in both of hers.
Once back in the visiting room, it was harder to keep a brave face. As 3 p.m. approached, Glossip held Lea’s hands tighter. “He kept telling me, you know, something could happen,” she said. “We’re gonna get through it no matter what.”
“Then, all of a sudden, the warden comes in and says, ‘I need both of you. Come out to the hallway,’” Lea said. The room went quiet. Since their visit was coming to an end, Lea assumed the warden wanted to discuss handing over the box of property. Instead, he told them that the U.S. Supreme Court had just stayed Glossip’s execution. “And we just completely, completely crumbled into each other.”
Upon their return to the visiting room, they raised their arms up together and said, “We got the stay.” And the room erupted with cheers.
Confession of Error
The stay of execution was the latest twist in a seemingly never-ending saga that has seen Glossip come close to execution nine different times. Just one month earlier, the state’s attorney general, Genter Drummond, had asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate Glossip’s conviction and death sentence, saying he could no longer stand by the conviction.
But in a series of devastating blows, the court rejected Drummond’s motion and said it saw no reason to stay Glossip’s execution. By then, Glossip’s lawyers had filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to address misconduct in the case that had recently come to light. But it was only after the legal team filed a second petition — and a request for a stay backed by the attorney general himself — that the high court intervened, blocking the execution while it considers whether to take the case.
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 manager, to the crime. Instead, the case against him was built almost entirely on the testimony of 19-year-old Justin Sneed, who worked at the motel as a handyman.
Sneed admitted to murdering Van Treese but claimed it was all Glossip’s idea. On Sneed’s word alone, prosecutors theorized that Glossip wanted Van Treese dead so he could take over operations of the low-rent motel. At trial, they painted Sneed as powerless to resist Glossip’s command to kill the boss. In exchange for testifying against Glossip, Sneed avoided 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 mounted. New evidence supports Glossip’s contention that Sneed, a chronic drug user with a violent streak, initially planned to rob Van Treese and killed him when the plan went sideways. Sneed implicated Glossip in this scheme during a highly suggestive police interrogation. Witnesses who were ignored by police and prosecutors have since come forward to say that Sneed was cunning and manipulative and quite capable of killing a man on his own.
Glossip’s defense team has also uncovered a cascade of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The state destroyed a box of crucial evidence before Glossip was retried in 2004, and it suppressed evidence that Sneed sought to recant his incriminating testimony. More recently, Glossip’s legal team found notes reflecting that prosecutor Connie Smothermon knew that portions of Sneed’s testimony were false.
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.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that the state got it wrong, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has routinely rejected Glossip’s appeals. In April, the judges all but ignored Drummond’s confession of error and explained away Sneed’s misstatements, finding that he was “likely in denial of his mental health disorders.”
The court’s ruling triggered the 35-day protocol preceding Glossip’s execution date, including a hearing on April 26 before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, whose members are empowered to recommend clemency to the governor. At the hearing, Drummond sided with Glossip’s defense team; it was the first time in Oklahoma’s history that an attorney general argued in favor of clemency for a person on death row.
The board was not swayed. To secure a clemency recommendation, Glossip needed a favorable vote from three members. Instead, the board deadlocked, voting 2-2. Under board rules, a tie is weighted in favor of the “no” votes, resulting in a denial of clemency.
The Oklahoma Constitution requires that the board be comprised of five “impartial” members, three appointed by the governor, and one each appointed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. For Glossip’s hearing, however, just four were present; board member Richard Smothermon, who is married to the prosecutor at the center of Glossip’s misconduct claims, had recused himself from the case in July 2022.
Despite the advance warning, nothing was done to fix the issue: While the state constitution requires a five-member board, state statutes and administrative rules provide no mechanism for the designation of an alternate when a member is recused.
Two days before the hearing, Don Knight, Glossip’s lead attorney, filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court asking the court to permanently bar the state from executing Glossip absent a clemency hearing conducted within constitutional parameters.
By allowing the board to make clemency decisions without its full complement of members, the state was putting a greater burden on Glossip, Knight argued. Instead of winning three out of five votes, he would be required to secure three of four. Knight asked the court to declare the April 26 hearing “void of any legal effect.” The lawsuit remains pending.
The Fight Ahead
Both of the petitions pending before the Supreme Court deal with crucial evidence that the state withheld from Glossip’s defense. The first petition was filed in early January, when Glossip was facing a February execution date. The state responded quickly, asking the court to reject the petition. Notably, the court has repeatedly put off considering the case; so far it has been scheduled for discussion six times.
By the end of January, much had changed. The outgoing attorney general, John O’Connor, was replaced by Genter Drummond, who quickly launched an independent investigation into Glossip’s case and released to Glossip’s attorneys a box of prosecution records that O’Connor had refused to let the defense see. The box contained the records related to Sneed’s misleading testimony, evidence that prompted Drummond to conclude that Glossip’s conviction could not stand.
Drummond’s intervention may not have moved the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals or the parole board, but it is clear that the Supreme Court is taking his position more seriously. Not only did the attorney general join Glossip’s motion for a stay of execution, which the court granted on May 5, but there is also every indication that he will join Glossip’s appeal to the court.
To McDugle, the state lawmaker, Oklahoma’s response to Glossip’s case has damaged the credibility of key state institutions. “This case is no longer about justice,” he said at a press conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol the day before the stay was granted. “It’s about power, pride, and politics. That’s what it’s become.”
McDugle said that prior to getting involved in Glossip’s case, he didn’t realize how “deeply embedded” the state’s prosecutors are in all branches of government. Through the District Attorneys Council, they apply pressure across the system to protect their power.
This dynamic explained the presence of several district attorneys from across the state at Glossip’s clemency hearing: The point was not only to stare down the board and get them to vote “no,” but also to demonstrate their objection to the attorney general’s unprecedented intervention. Among them was former Oklahoma County DA David Prater, who took extreme measures to defend Glossip’s conviction — including orchestrating the arrest of a witness who came forward with information about Sneed.
The District Attorneys Council has actively sought to undermine Prater’s successor, Vicki Behenna, the county’s first female elected DA. In April, Behenna wrote a letter to the parole board noting that under new guidelines she had instituted, Glossip’s case would not be eligible for capital prosecution. Behenna’s position has further fueled backlash to the attorney general’s intervention. Prater and the District Attorneys Council know that if the courts agree that Glossip’s conviction should be overturned, it will be up to Behenna to decide whether to retry the case.
On Tuesday, Glossip’s supporters held a rally on the front steps of the Oklahoma Capitol. The featured speaker was Phil McGraw, whose coverage of Glossip’s case in 2015 prompted new witnesses to come forward. Knight, Glossip’s lawyer, reminded the crowd that the fight was not over. The Supreme Court stay represented one victory in a battle that will “rage on” until Glossip is freed, he said. Lea emphasized that there was still a lot of work to be done and thanked everyone for supporting their efforts. “We truly do need all of you — especially as Oklahomans — right now.”
As she told The Intercept, the last month has been a legal and emotional rollercoaster. “It feels like this really insane detour just happened. Now we’re just getting back on the road we were supposed to be on,” she said. “And I like to think it was a good vindication for Drummond also because he’s taken so much blowback.”
On the morning after the Supreme Court granted the stay, Lea and Glossip felt a sense of relief they hadn’t felt in a long time. “That was the first good night’s sleep we both had in a while,” Lea said. “Saturday was the first day we’ve woken up in 11 months without an execution date over us.”