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Is Oklahoma Set to Execute an Innocent Man? Inside the Case of Richard Glossip

StorySeptember 14, 2015
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Time is running out for Richard Glossip. The state of Oklahoma is scheduled to execute Glossip on Wednesday night, but his legal team is pushing for a new review of the case, saying the state is about to kill an innocent man. On the night of January 6, 1997, while Glossip was working as a manager at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered at the motel. There has never been a question about who committed the murder: A maintenance worker named Justin Sneed admitted entering the boss’s room and striking him multiple times with a baseball bat. But Glossip was soon arrested, as well, for allegedly hiring Sneed to carry out the murder. The case rested almost solely on Sneed’s claims that Glossip had offered him money and job opportunities for the killing. Glossip’s attorneys say Sneed implicated their client in exchange for a deal to receive life in prison instead of the death penalty. Sneed’s own daughter has said she believes Glossip is innocent. In a letter, O’Ryan Justine Sneed told the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board her father has spoken to her about recanting his original testimony. No physical evidence has ever tied Richard Glossip to the crime, and he has maintained his innocence. We speak with the well-known anti-death-penalty activist and author Sister Helen Prejean; Kim Van Atta, who has corresponded with Richard Glossip for 16 years; and Liliana Segura, who wrote about Glossip’s case for The Intercept.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Time is running out for Richard Glossip. The state of Oklahoma is scheduled to execute him on Wednesday night, but his legal team is pushing for a new review of the case, saying the state is about to kill innocent man.

Richard Glossip was convicted in a murder-for-hire case. In 1997, he was working as a manager at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City. On the night of January 6, 1997, his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered at the motel. There’s never been a question about who committed the murder: A maintenance worker named Justin Sneed admitted entering the boss’s room, striking him multiple times with a baseball bat. But Glossip was soon arrested, as well, for allegedly hiring Sneed to carry out the murder. The case rested almost solely on Justin Sneed’s claims that Glossip had offered him money and job opportunities for the killing. Glossip’s attorneys say Sneed implicated their client in exchange for a deal to receive life in prison instead of the death penalty. No physical evidence tied Glossip to the crime. Glossip has long maintained his innocence.

His case has been taken up by many celebrities, including Sister Helen Prejean, who is played by actress Susan Sarandon in the film Dead Man Walking. Susan Sarandon herself has also taken up Glossip’s cause. She recently read a message from Glossip on the program Dr. Phil.

SUSAN SARANDON: “I have been fighting for my innocence for 18 years. I now understand how important my fight is, not just for myself but for everyone facing the death penalty for something they didn’t do. I’m not doing this for myself alone. I hope and pray that my eventual exoneration will help others, and that this country will finally realize just how broken our system is, and how easy it is to make mistakes. Let me be clear, I do not want to be a martyr—I want to live—but if the worst happens, I want my death not to be in vain. If my execution ensured no other innocent man was sent to the death chamber, I am prepared to die for that cause.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Susan Sarandon reading a message from Richard Glossip on Dr. Phil.

To talk more about Richard Glossip’s case, we’re joined by three guests. Liliana Segura is with us, criminal justice reporter for The Intercept. Her latest piece is headlined “Time Is Running Out for Richard Glossip.” She’s joining us from Nashville, Tennessee.

Kim Van Atta started corresponding with Richard Glossip 16 years ago, has since become a close friend. He’s been advocating on his behalf for the last year and a half. He started the website RichardEGlossip.com. Kim spent the day with Richard on Sunday.

And with Kim Van Atta in Oklahoma is Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists. As a Catholic nun, she began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She’s the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, the book that’s been translated into numerous languages and turned into an opera, a play and an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Sister Helen Prejean, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s start with you. Why are you in Oklahoma? Talk about why you’ve taken up Richard Glossip’s case?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I talked to Richard for the first time, after writing him, on January 5th, and he said to me, “Sister Helen, I hope you don’t mind, I didn’t ask you or anything, but I put you down to be with me if I’m executed.” So, that was all I needed. And I knew there’s no way I’m just going to walk with a man to execution who’s innocent, began looking into it, came to Oklahoma, visited him, and we started—we assembled a team of lawyers. And we started reaching out to the media to just get the word out this man is really innocent. And in this broken system, the man who killed Barry Van Treese is in a medium-security prison, and Richard, with no physical evidence against him, solely on this man’s word, is about to go to his death. We’ve been fighting ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: Amazingly, his name is the case that want to the Supreme Court—Liliana Segura, I’d like to ask you about this—yet it wasn’t a case about his innocence, it was a case about the drug that would be used to kill him.

LILIANA SEGURA: That’s right, Amy. And so, to be perfectly honest, this case did not come upon my radar, as a journalist who follows these issues pretty closely, until the Supreme Court took up this issue of lethal injection in Oklahoma and that specific drug. And Richard Glossip was the lead plaintiff challenging this protocol, one of a number of men, and that was—his execution had actually come down to the wire and been then halted in January so that the Supreme Court could take up the issue. And I was down at oral arguments in Washington listening to this rather surreal discussion about the proper way to kill a human being. And it’s such an indictment of the death penalty as it stands, that the man whose name is synonymous with this rather perverse debate has a very legitimate claim to innocence, and that fact or that question of his guilt was nowhere to be discussed and nowhere to be found in that discussion. So that was really the reason that, along with my colleague Jordan Smith, I decided to look into just the records of this case and the two trials, and just probe the question of why no one had really brought this up in a major way before.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what you see as the major failings. I mean, he was charged—he went to court twice. He had two trials. How is it that with no evidence directly—no evidence directly tying him to the murder—no one doubts that Justin Sneed murdered the owner of the motel. I want to turn to comments made recently by a former juror in the case, who joined 11 others in convicting Glossip in the initial trial. In a statement to Fox 25, the juror said, quote, “If the defense would have presented me the case that they are presenting now in the original trial, I would not have given a guilty verdict.” The juror goes on to say, quote, “I feel that this situation needs to be looked at and at the very least given a 60-day stay.” What was presented in these trials, and what do you know to be the case, Liliana?

LILIANA SEGURA: Well, the case really hinges on the testimony of Justin Sneed. And that right there is a huge problem, not just in death penalty cases, but throughout the criminal justice system, these incentivized witnesses who have every reason to lie in order to save themselves—Justin Sneed does not face execution—and who cut deals with the state and with prosecutors who, quite frankly, are just hell-bent on getting these convictions. Glossip was tried and convicted twice on what seems to many people to be blatantly shoddy, incomplete evidence. So it’s really the incentivized testimony, and then, in both cases, really insufficient sort of legal representation, which was the grounds for the first conviction to be overturned. So those were the sort of two problems.

The other thing is that in trying to investigate this case as a journalist, the Oklahoma City Police Department would not turn over their records. But one thing that we do know, if you read the transcripts of Justin Sneed’s interrogation, it’s very, very, very clear that the police detectives were sort of leading him to implicate Richard Glossip and save himself, and that becomes very clear as you read through those transcripts. So even with the incomplete police file, you get a sort of clear picture of what jurors, importantly, did not see, which was that interrogation tape.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Justin Sneed’s daughter, O’Ryan Justine Sneed, wrote a letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board seeking clemency for Glossip and asserting his innocence. She also said that her father, Justin Sneed, had spoken to her of recanting his testimony. She wrote, quote, “I strongly believe [Glossip] is an innocent man sitting on death row. … For a couple of years now, my father has been talking to me about recanting his original testimony. But has been afraid to act upon it, in fear of being charged with the Death Penalty … His fear of recanting, but guilt about not doing so, makes it obvious that information he is sitting on would exonerate Mr. Glossip.” Which brings us to Kim Van Atta. You have been corresponding with and meeting with Richard Glossip for years. You spent, what, Sunday with him. Can you talk about where—what he is saying now? We are just a few days away from his execution date.

KIM VAN ATTA: Yes, thank you. Richard is remarkably upbeat. He’s handling this a whole lot better than I am. And he says that as he’s sitting in his cell with hundreds of letters from around the world—he’s probably gotten almost 700, 800 letters and emails—and he says that right now he feels good because people have heard him, people have—are now believing in his innocence. And he said, “My voice has been heard.” And I said to him, “I think that that’s what we all want in life, is our voice to be heard.” So he’s very strong right now. He’s holding the rest of us up, in many ways.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, how does this case compare to other cases that you have followed? How many people have you followed on death row to the end?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: I’ve accompanied six people, and two of them were innocent. That’s in my second book, The Death of Innocents. And they all had the same ingredients in it, the innocent ones, that Richard has. So you have hopelessly inadequate defense. You have a rabid prosecution anxious to get as many death penalties as they can. And here in Oklahoma, that prosecutor, that DA was Bob Macy. He got 54 death penalties. So you have inadequate defense, you have rabid prosecution, and then you have this kind of flimsy, where the confession of somebody, that that’s what they use. So this was Justin Sneed.

And the lawyers for Richard have really been looking at all the testimony, in the transcripts, in the videotape of Sneed. He gave eight different stories, and the jury never got to hear this, because when you have inadequate defense and you have Justin Sneed up there, solely on his word, what you want to do is get all those contradictions and say, “But, Mr. Sneed, over here you said this. Well, here you said this.” You show all the lies, and you impeach his credibility in front of the jury so they know not to believe him. And then you actively go after evidence. So, the defense didn’t do that. The police didn’t do that. They didn’t investigate or talk to other probable witnesses. They didn’t nail the forensic evidence.

Evidence goes missing. The shower curtain, that Justin Sneed said had Richard’s fingerprints on it, goes missing. The motel receipts that would show that Richard had no incentive to steal or to kill his boss because he had been stealing shows that the motel was doing well. The videotape, surveillance video across the street at a gas station, which shows where Justin went afterwards, and a mysterious man who ran over there and left town in such a hurry—and this is after the murder—that he left his luggage in his room, that tape goes missing. Prosecution is in charge of the evidence. So you have evidence that goes missing. You have other people who should have been interviewed, like the person in the room right next door to where the murder occurred in room 102, the man in 103, who talked about all the voices he heard arguing, multiple voices, to contradict what Sneed said, that there was no talking when he killed Barry Van [Treese]. That’s how it always happens.

And I placed this right in the laps of the Supreme Court of the United States, who have given these so-called guidelines that it’s supposed to be the worst of the worst, but then given the full discretionary power to DAs whether to go for the death penalty or not. And when you’re in a climate like Oklahoma, like Texas has been and other—where the pockets of the death penalty are strongest, you have people that want to go for the death penalty all the time. Here was a robbery gone bad in a motel for drugs. How did the DA see this as the worst of the worst? And the man who did the murder isn’t even in prison. It’s got all the ingredients of a broken system, which if the Supreme Court would get out of their little marble building and go down on the ground and see how in actual practice the death penalty is being applied, they could see how broken it is. But they never look at the ground.

And that Glossip decision about the drugs, they basically are telling Oklahoma, “You experiment any way you want with killing human beings. We’re not going to monitor it.” Veterinarians Association monitor more closely the euthanizing of animals, what drugs you use, who administers it, than we do for the killing of human beings. And Richard exemplifies every bit of what is wrong with the death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, the former senator of Oklahoma, extremely conservative, Tom Coburn, has called for Richard Glossip not to be executed, joining many others in this. The pope is coming to the United States, Pope Francis, this next week. Can you talk about the significance of both the pope’s visit, when it comes to the death penalty and his position, and Tom Coburn, his calling for Glossip to be saved?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yeah, that was wonderful. When you have voices that start being raised who have credibility in the community like that, you know that something significant is happening. And I just personally am convinced there is no way that Pope Francis is going to come to the United States and not address the death penalty. He already has made strong, strong statements about it. And he knows how broken it is. In other cases, I’ve been in touch with him through contact people, and I know how strongly he feels about it. And so, he will directly address it; there’s no doubt about that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, Sister Helen Prejean and Kim Van Atta, both joining us from Oklahoma City, and Liliana Segura. We’ll link to your pieces at The Intercept on the case of Richard Glossip, who is scheduled to die on Wednesday unless that sentence is commuted.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Dead Man Walking: Extended Interview with Sister Helen Prejean on Decades of Death Penalty Activism

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