- Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean is 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 is the author of the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which has been translated into numerous languages and turned into an opera, a play and an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
[Update: After the broadcast an Oklahoma appeals court granted death row prisoner Richard Glossip a last-minute stay. His new execution date is September 30.]
Attorneys for death row prisoner Richard Glossip have made a last-minute bid to save his life, saying the state of Oklahoma may be about to execute an innocent man. Glossip is scheduled to die at 3 p.m. Central time today. On Tuesday, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin denied him a stay of execution as protests grew from supporters who say he is innocent. In 1997, Glossip was working as a manager at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City when his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A maintenance worker, Justin Sneed, admitted he beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, but claimed Glossip coerced him into the killing, offering him money and job opportunities. The case rested almost solely on Sneed’s claims. No physical evidence ever tied Glossip to the crime. Glossip’s attorneys say Sneed implicated their client in exchange for a deal to receive life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. We go now to Oklahoma City, where we are joined by 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 is the author of the best-selling book, “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Attorneys for death row prisoner Richard Glossip have made a last-minute bid to save his life, saying the state of Oklahoma may be about to execute an innocent man. Glossip is scheduled to die at 3:00 p.m. Central time today. On Tuesday, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin denied him a stay of execution as protests grew from supporters who say he is innocent.
In 1997, Glossip was working as a manager at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, when his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A maintenance worker, Justin Sneed, admitted he beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, but claimed Glossip coerced him into the killing, offering him money and job opportunities. The case rested almost solely on Sneed’s claims. No physical evidence ever tied Glossip to the crime. Glossip’s attorneys say Sneed implicated their client in exchange for a deal to receive life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: Justin Sneed’s own daughter is among those to call for sparing Richard Glossip’s life. Last year, O’Ryan Justine Sneed wrote to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board saying her father considered recanting his testimony implicating Glossip and that she “strongly believe[s]” Glossip is innocent.
On Tuesday, Glossip’s attorneys asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to halt Glossip’s execution, saying new evidence further supports his innocence. This week, Glossip’s attorneys released an affidavit from the man who was imprisoned across from [Justin] Sneed. The man, Michael Scott, told a private investigator, quote, “Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river.” Scott described one instance where Sneed was, quote, “fixing some food, and laughing with (other prisoners) about setting Richard Glossip up for a crime Richard didn’t do.”
We go now to Oklahoma City, where we’re joined by 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’s been translated into many languages and turned into an opera, a play, an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. She is in Oklahoma City for Richard Glossip.
The governor of Oklahoma refused to stay the execution, Sister Helen. What happens now?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: It’s very interesting what’s happened here. I’ve never seen this before. First of all, I’ve never been involved this intimately in a case of someone who’s actually innocent, as Richard Glossip is. And the governor was saying, “Just show us”—they actually—she and the DA, David Prater, actually were saying things like, “Bring us your new evidence, bring us your witnesses, because we’ve been through this case, and we’re convinced that justice was done, and we know that Glossip’s guilty.” And it was an amazing thing that at this level of like the local DA, are saying to the lawyers trying to save Richard’s life, “Bring us your evidence and your witnesses, and if they’re credible, we’ll bring them to the governor ourselves.”
But what happened here, Amy, is, in January 5th, I talked to Richard Glossip for the first time, and he told me he had put me down, if I didn’t mind, to witness his execution. So I knew there’s no way I was just going to walk with him to his death. And so I began—first of all, you’ve got to recruit pro bono excellent attorneys. And the lead attorney on this case has been Mark Olive, who’s argued before the Supreme Court. And I knew we were going to have a hard, hard job. And so, then we hired—we got money, cobbled money together, to get investigators, and Don Knight has been our man on the road. He’s filled with the red dirt of Oklahoma, because he started getting in there to get the evidence and the witnesses that were never presented at Richard’s trial.
And as you said, it was all on the word of Justin Sneed. So we need to do two things. We need to impeach the credibility of Justin Sneed, as they did not do in the trial. And they found a witness. They found someone who was a methamphetamine drug dealer, who talked about Justin Sneed’s drug habit and that he was very addicted, that he had robbed vending machines, he’d bring food stamps, he’d break into cars and steal stereos to get money for drugs, and so showed that, in fact, he was not the one prosecution had presented as just a maintenance man who was trying to do his job and get money for his children, but he was a deeply addicted drug addict. They never presented him that way. And they are presenting that, and then they’re presenting what you just referred to, Michael Scott, where you actually have Sneed bragging in prison that he set Richard Glossip up. And here he is in a medium-security prison.
They knew they had to get that new evidence to impeach his credibility, and that’s what they’re bringing to the court, that’s what they filed at 4:00 in the Criminal Court of Appeals, saying this is evidence of innocence, give us a chance, give us a hearing. And with what we present, we know that if we can bring this back to trial, no reasonable jury would convict him, find him guilty, much less sentence him to death. So that’s where we are right now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sister Helen, what do you make of the reaction of the local district attorney, calling all of this a BS PR campaign at the last minute?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, I was there. I was amazed. And nobody had ever seen a local DA come to a press conference. He was so angry. He was red-faced, and he was shouting obscenities. And that’s the—that’s also in the statement of the governor when she refused to give a stay. She said, “This has been nothing but a publicity campaign by death penalty—anti-death-penalty activists to try to bring down the death penalty in Oklahoma and in the United States.” They upheld the case, saying Glossip is guilty, and we will proceed with the execution.
You know what I’m struck by is you have competing narratives of truth. I’ve learned this, that what you have is all the jury heard was the prosecutor’s narrative and that Glossip must have put Sneed up to it, Sneed was just a hard-working man, he was trying to just send money to his children and all—and occasionally might have done drugs. And that’s the way they presented him. And what they did with Don Knight’s work and these excellent lawyers, Kathleen Lord, Don Knight and then Mark Olive, who gave us the words to file with the court here, was here’s another narrative that the jury never heard. Here’s a drug-addicted man who didn’t need an extra incentive like Glossip to put him up to breaking into a room to steal money for drugs. Look at who he was and what he did. And so that’s what they’ve been able to show by getting these witnesses, and that is what they have presented to the court. I was amazed.
And the DA made statements in the local newspaper afterwards, and he was actually saying things like, “Why didn’t the lawyers just come and present me their evidence and present me their witnesses? And if I had found them credible, I would have presented them myself to the governor.” Well, he’s not the decider, and the governor isn’t the decider about what’s real and credible in a court. They had to bring that to a court. The reason that the lawyers were asking the governor to give them more time was because in the very short period of time they’ve had, they’ve already been able to gather this much new evidence, and they were simply saying to her, “Give us 60 more days, and we’ll have even more to bring to the court.” But they misinterpreted everything as an anti-death-penalty campaign, and that we ought to—the lawyers ought to be bringing everything to them. And Donald Knight said, “I’m going to bring them my witnesses, and then they’re going to get to those witnesses themselves, and they’re going to be trying to hold the whole trial right out here in front of the public.” They’re not the deciders of this. It’s going to be the courts that’s the deciders of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Justin Sneed’s daughter, O’Ryan Justine Sneed, wrote this letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board seeking clemency for Glossip, asserting his innocence. She also said her father had spoken to her of recanting his testimony, writing, “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.” That’s Justin Sneed’s daughter. His mother is also saying something similar. The significance of this? And did the parole board ever receive this letter? Mr. Sneed, in a medium-security prison now, he was not given the death penalty because he turned over Glossip. The question of the police officers who interrogated Sneed, introducing this to them, saying, “If you say Glossip is responsible”—and this is on tape—”you will not get the death penalty”—did this go to the board?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Absolutely not. Of course not. It wasn’t even shown at trial, that the jurors, who are the fact finders, could even—they would have seen in the videotaped confession the leading questions of Bemo and Cook, who were the police detectives. They would have seen it for themselves. They saw nothing. So you have complete, undergirding all of this, ineffectiveness of counsel, who never really put up the defense in this, as well.
And I think Justin Sneed, he gave eight different versions of it, so he gravitate—he shifts back and forth, from day to day, of what version—I’m not sure he even knows at this point. He has a—he has, in quotes, “a good life,” in the sense he’s in a medium-security prison, and where you have—you can get a decent job with pay. And he doesn’t want to rock the boat. I think he does, at times, have moments where—like that letter to Justine, to his daughter, but he doesn’t have the moral caliber or even, I want to say, a cohesiveness of moral caliber to be able to hold it together and stand up. He was a terrible mess, addict, and I’m not sure about him at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen, we just have 30 seconds, but, I mean, this is 18 years, about, after the murder.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is this coming out on the morning of the execution of Richard Glossip, if in fact that goes forward today, 3:00 Central time, in Oklahoma?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Because we got started so late. I talked to him on January 5th. We knew the Supreme Court was coming down with a lethal injection thing by the end of June. We assembled a team together, all pro bono, and we haven’t had much time to work. So they literally filed yesterday at 4:00 as they were still getting witnesses.
AMY GOODMAN: Might nitrogen gas also be used, since Oklahoma has passed that as a way of killing prisoners?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: You know what? The Supreme Court has said, “You kill people any way you want. We’re not even going to monitor. You want to use gas, use it. You want to shoot him, use it.” They have given carte blanche to states, first of all, to be the ones who will try, be given—you know, the ones who have control of trying the cases. And then they give them carte blanche: “Use whatever method you want, because killing people isn’t cruel,” they said, “it’s not against the Eighth Amendment.” That’s the Supreme Court. And that’s why we have states like Oklahoma, where this DA, Bob Macy, who went after Richard Glossip, had 54 death sentences. So you have these pockets in states that are avid pro-death-penalty states, and they go after the death penalty every chance they get.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, we want to thank you very much for being with us.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And we will continue to monitor this through the day. People should check democracynow.org, our tweets and our Facebook, as we update you on what happens today with Richard Glossip. Sister Helen Prejean, one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists. Among her books is, well, the best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the case of the tennis star taken down by a New York police officer. What was that officer’s record? How many times has he been sued for brutality? Stay with us.