By Victoria Valenzuela / ScheerPost Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked Oklahoma from executing Richard Glossip, a likely innocent man who has spent 26 years on the state’s death row, to give the court time to review his case. The ruling follows unprecedented bipartisan support and consensus that Glossip did not receive a fair trial.
The conservative-leaning court acted after Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General, Gentner Drummond, asked the justices last week to grant Glossip a stay of execution, stating that “there were enough problems with Glossip’s conviction that he deserves a new trial.” The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on April 20 had deadlocked on his request to vacate Glossip’s conviction.
“Glossip’s trial was unfair and unreliable,” Drummond told the justices.
His innocence claims have been supported across political lines, including that of Drummond and Republican State Representative Kevin McDugle, as well as internationally when Stavros Lambrinidis, European Union Ambassador to the US, and Karin Olofsdotter, Swedish Ambassador to the US, sent Gov. Stitt of Oklahoma a letter on May 4 urging him to grant Glossip a stay of execution.
Glossip, who was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection, has maintained that he is innocent of the murder, in which no evidence pointed to him.
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When he was arrested in January 1997, Glossip was working as a motel manager in Oklahoma City when his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A 19-year-old maintenance worker who also worked at the motel, Justin Sneed, who had a previous criminal record, admitted to beating Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, stabbing him and stealing cash from under the front seat of Van Treese’s car. Sneed’s fingerprints and DNA were found all over the crime scene and on the money he stole from Van Treese.
After Sneed’s capture and arrest, he initially described the murder as a robbery gone wrong and denied killing Van Treese. Prosecutors filed capital charges against him and insisted that he did not act alone, then told him they would withdraw the death penalty if he’d testify to the jury in the capital trial of Richard Glossip. Sneed then alleged that Glossip offered him $10,000 in a murder-for-hire job against Van Treese.
The case rested almost entirely on Sneed’s claims, and no forensic evidence or other witnesses tied Glossip to the crime. Sneed, in exchange for his testimony, was sentenced to life without parole. Police did not investigate Sneed’s previous charges nor did the jury hear about them.
Drummond said problems with the case included Sneed lying in the trial about his psychiatric condition and his reason for taking the drug lithium as well as the destruction of evidence by the prosecution. Also, since the trial, new witnesses and evidence have surfaced that strongly suggest that Sneed acted alone in the murder and undermine his credibility as the key witness against Glossip.
In January, Drummond ordered an innocence investigation into Glossip’s case and appointed “special counsel to conduct a ‘thorough review’ of the case,” two days after the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals pushed back Glossip’s execution date from Feb. 16 to May 18. This came after a team of 30 attorneys with the global law firm Reed Smith released a detailed 343-page report on the findings of its independent investigation into the case last June, requested by an ad hoc committee of Oklahoma state legislators in February 2022. This first investigation revealed the state’s intentional destruction of evidence before trial, an inadequate police investigation and additional evidence, never presented to the jury or to any court, that would likely have led to a different outcome in the case, according to the Reed Smith team.
Republican State Representative Kevin McDugle held a press conference in July on the innocence investigation findings in which he expresses grave concern that the case was manipulated by the state, as the district attorney’s office purposely destroyed an entire box of evidence that could have exonerated Glossip.
McDugle also said that if Glossip is executed, he will fight to end the state’s death penalty “simply because the process is not pure.”
“Circumstances surrounding this case necessitate a thorough review,” Drummond announced in January as he ordered a second innocence investigation. “While I am confident in our judicial system, that does not allow me to ignore evidence. This review helps ensure that justice is served, both to the Van Treese family and the accused.”
The second investigation concluded last month, where the independent counsel concluded that Glossip “was deprived of a fair trial in which the state can have confidence in the process and the result” and that violations under discovery mandates prevented this.
While the counsel believes that Glossip may have been involved in the murder, as they believe that he incriminated himself as an accessory after the fact during a 1997 interview and jury trial, they state, “The cumulative effect of errors, omissions, lost evidence and possible misconduct cannot be underestimated.”
Glossip has had his execution date rescheduled multiple times including September 2015, when he was just minutes from execution when then-Gov. Mary Fallin postponed it over concerns the state procured an unauthorized drug for the procedure.
There have been 3,284 exonerations of wrongful convictions since 1989. If exonerated, Gossip will add to the 191 men and women on death row who have been exonerated in the US.
If not exonerated or his sentence isn’t commuted, then Gossip will add to the growing list of 42 people executed by the state of Oklahoma, and 2,414 executed by the US government.
Oklahoma courts had refused to grant Glossip a hearing on his allegations of innocence. As Glossip exhausts every legal avenue for reprieve, his case is gaining national attention and support from many activists, including Susan Sarandon, media outlets, faith leaders and dozens of legislators.
Victoria Valenzuela is an investigative reporter based in California covering issues in criminal justice. She currently oversees the criminal justice coverage as a reporter at ScheerPost. She is also a fellow with the Law and Justice Journalism Project. In the past, Valenzuela has also worked with ProPublica, BuzzFeed News, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is completing graduate studies at the University of Southern California, where she also helps teach a class on the power and responsibility of the press.