- Don Knight
one of the pro bono attorneys representing death row inmate Richard Glossip.
- 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.
Update: The governor of Oklahoma has issued a 37-day stay of execution
Death row prisoner Richard Glossip is slated to be executed this afternoon. An Oklahoma court recently rejected a request for a new hearing in the case. 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 offered him money and job opportunities for the killing. The case rested almost solely on Sneed’s claims. No physical evidence ever tied Glossip to the crime. In recent months, two men who served time in jail with Sneed have come forward saying Sneed framed Glossip to avoid the death penalty himself. On Monday, the court ruled this evidence “merely builds upon evidence previously presented to the court,” and rejected a stay of execution. More than 240,000 people have signed a petition to spare Glossip’s life. We’re joined on the phone by two guests: Don Knight, one of the pro bono attorneys representing death row inmate Richard Glossip, and 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: Death row prisoner Richard Glossip is slated to be executed this afternoon. An Oklahoma court recently rejected a request for a new hearing in the case. 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 offered him money and job opportunities for the killing. The case rested almost solely on Sneed’s claims. No physical evidence ever tied Glossip to the crime.
In recent months, two men who served time in jail with Sneed have come forward saying Sneed framed Glossip to avoid the death penalty himself. On Monday, the court ruled this evidence, quote, “merely builds upon evidence previously presented to the court,” and it rejected a stay of execution. More than 240,000 people have signed a petition to spare Glossip’s life.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined on the telephone by two guests: Don Knight, one of the pro bono attorneys representing death row prisoner Richard Glossip, and 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.
Don Knight, let’s start with you. You’re both in Oklahoma about to head over to the prison, where Richard Glossip is right now scheduled to die 3:00 p.m. Oklahoma time. Can you tell us what the latest is, what you have filed to try to prevent his execution and why you are contending he’s an innocent man?
DON KNIGHT: Well, thank you, Amy and Juan, for having us on your program this morning. This is obviously a very, very important issue for everyone today.
We have filed two matters that are pending right now. One is with the governor here, Mary Fallin. We have once again asked her for a 60-day stay of execution, so that we can have an opportunity to get back in front of the clemency board and ask once again for clemency for Richard Glossip, with our new evidence as the basis for the clemency claim.
The second issue is pending in front of the United States Supreme Court this morning on a writ asking the court to grant a stay and give us an opportunity for a hearing. The basis for our claim in front of the Supreme Court is, first off, that Richard Glossip is innocent. There just doesn’t seem to be any doubt, and all of the doubt that has ever been in this case seems to be disappearing very quickly, because we have really uncovered evidence that Justin Sneed is just simply categorically unreliable. He remains so today. In a recent interview that he gave, he lied several times in the interview, made up new facts just simply to fit whatever narrative he had going on that particular day. This was an interview with a woman reporter from a magazine called The Frontier. But his testimony has been pretty unreliable ever since the first time he ever opened his mouth with the police. He told four different stories just in one interview way back in 1997. So our basis is the fact that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution requires reliability and fairness in capital cases. And in this particular case, there is simply no reliability. And if he is to be executed today, there is simply no fairness in the Eighth Amendment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Don Knight, what are the key—the key aspects of the new evidence that you are claiming needs to be reviewed?
DON KNIGHT: Well, we have uncovered information, and this is new evidence from three individuals. The first one, just sort of in time, is the man who was selling Justin Sneed drugs. Justin Sneed was portrayed as being somebody who was simply a drifter, sort of a loner, but he didn’t have a real drug problem, he just occasionally used drugs, kind of a lazy guy hanging around the motel, and he was somehow subject to the whims of Mr. Glossip, who had some control over him. The drug dealer will testify, actually, that Justin Sneed was your basic meth head. He was constantly using the drug, using it intravenously, stealing from cars, stealing from motel rooms. And that’s exactly what happened here. He went into the motel room and beat Barry Van Treese to death in an attempt to get his car key so that he could take money from the car. He did not need to be, nor was he directed to do so by Richard Glossip.
The second new evidence, new witness that we found, was a man who spent time with Justin Sneed shortly after Justin Sneed was arrested in 1997. He was his cellmate in the county jail. And that individual will testify that Mr. Sneed told him all about the crime on many occasions and never once mentioned that it was a murder for hire, never once mentioned Richard Glossip’s name. He just basically said he did for the money, which is of course what we know that he now did.
The third witness will testify that after the second trial, while he was in the prison with Mr. Sneed, he overheard Mr. Sneed telling a very close friend of Mr. Sneed, in fact, laughing about the fact that he had set Richard Glossip up so that Sneed could get a life sentence and Glossip was going to die.
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to play a short clip from the interrogation video of the key witness against Richard Glossip, Justin Sneed. The jury was not shown the video. The video was taken directly after his arrest for the murder of Barry Van Treese. Sneed talks about the amount of money he received and how it was divided. Listen carefully, as the audio quality isn’t very good.
JUSTIN SNEED: And then we went and got the money out of the car, and went and took it back to my room, so I guess like his girlfriend wouldn’t know nothing or nothing like that. And we split the money.
INTERROGATOR: How much did—money did you get?
JUSTIN SNEED: Uh, like about $1,900. I mean, he told me that the guy was sitting on like $7,000, but it only come out to being a little less than five, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Justin Sneed, 19 years old at the time, being interrogated for the murder of Barry Van Treese. Now, 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 her father had spoken to her of recanting his testimony. She wrote, “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.” So, this whole issue of this teenager who was charged, at the time being told by the police detectives that he would not be put to death if he implicated Glossip, is that right?
DON KNIGHT: That’s basically exactly what happened here, Amy. You know, they didn’t come right out and use those terms, but everything that they said basically pointed to him making sure that he implicated Glossip. The name Richard Glossip was brought up by the police, driven home by the police. And after Mr. Sneed gave a couple of versions that included Mr. Glossip and the police liked the one, the final one that he gave, they told him that he had basically helped himself out a great deal. We know from the first witness that we have found, after this matter took place, the one when he was in county jail, that witness told us that Justin Sneed was terrified of the death penalty, and he would do anything to get out of the death penalty. And it appears that that’s exactly what he’s done.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And have you been able to talk to Glossip in the last—in the last day or two? Give us a sense of his state of mind right now.
DON KNIGHT: I know that Sister Helen is on the line with us, and I think she’s spoken to him more recently than I have, and I think I’ll turn it over to her, if that’s OK with you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s fine. Sister Helen Prejean?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Yes, I’ve spoken to Richard twice yesterday. And Richard is in this place. See, he’s come close to death three times, and each time he came through unscathed. And his big question to me always is, “Sister Helen, what do you think is going to happen?” And up to now, to this point, I just said, “You are not going to die, Richard. And look at all the forces being assembled for you, all the people speaking for you, all the support.” But recently when we talked, I knew that I had to say to him, “Richard, you’re like in the whitewater rapids right now in your boat, and the waterfall is right there. You can hear it. And I’m praying for you, and you’ve got to position yourself to either go over the waterfall, which means the state is actually going to kill you for this, or to live.” And as he made in his own statement, which was read on the Dr. Phil show by Susan Sarandon, “I don’t want to be a martyr, and I don’t want to die, but if in fact this attention to my case and all that could go wrong in this and that you could actually put an innocent man to death, if it could bring attention in this country to all the people going through this and it could help end the death penalty for everyone, then my life will not be in vain.” These are not just words he says off the top of his head. It’s really within his being. And I think Richard is poised, at this point, to live or die.
I will hardly be able to believe it if he dies. The system in our criminal justice system, and particularly the administration of the death penalty, is so corrupt, it is so messed up. And just what Don Knight was just saying about Justin Sneed being terrified of death, that’s a tactic prosecutors use all the time to get people to confess or to buy their version of the story. And the reason that Richard Glossip is even facing death today at 3:00 is because the prosecutor, Bob Macy, got 54 death penalties. Every time he did, he cut a notch on his belt. And Richard had miserable defense. He almost had no defense. And there was no way investigation would be done. These witnesses that Don Knight and his stalwart team have cobbled together now, it was not done. The jury never heard it. So the jury only bought the version of what had happened from the prosecutor. And that’s the soil in which this tree produces such terrible fruit of people actually going to their death on the word, almost completely, of another man who has been shown to be a serious meth addict and who stole all the time. You don’t need to introduce Richard Glossip to be the mastermind. Justin Sneed was going in—sometimes, the drug dealer said, he would bring him coins. He stole from vending machines. Sometimes he brought him food stamps, a stereo from a car, because he was hooked on drugs. Why introduce Richard into the scenario at all, that he had to be the mastermind? And why? Because the one aggravating circumstance the prosecutor used to get the death penalty was murder for hire. That qualifies for the death penalty. And Richard Glossip is staring down death at 3:00 today because of that. That’s how broken this thing is.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Sister Helen, you talk about the injustice of the death penalty for so many others. Well, this last week, Pope Francis, when he was speaking to Congress, called for the abolition of the death penalty. This is what he said.
POPE FRANCIS: The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels the global abolition of the death penalty. And I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently, my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of death penalty. Not only—not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Pope Francis speaking to Congress last week. Sister Helen Prejean, your sense of the impact of the pope’s words and whether this is going to have some kind of effect in terms of achieving the abolition of the death penalty here in the United States?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: Well, a lot of people heard those words—and words that speak truth to us and call us to the more noble parts of ourselves, that protection of life, not just of innocent life—and that was a big surprise, because it was sustained applause when the pope said, you know, “protect life at every stage.” And I think everybody thought they knew what was coming next, and it would have to do with innocent life. But he held up the guilty. He held up people who have done terrible crimes, that they have dignity, and that—so the global abolition of the death penalty. And so, the words are out there, and the words reach some hearts. Some hearts seal off the words and refuse to let them come in.
But I knew that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was sitting there. He’s the fifth vote on the Supreme Court we need, which could abolish the death penalty. And the Richard Glossip case could be the case that just shows exactly how broken this thing is. When you let the states, like Oklahoma, be the administers of the death penalty, all the politics, all the culture comes in, so you get a Bob Macy, and you get people running for political office—off of the deaths of people. And so, I can only hope the pope’s words, spoken in such truth to us, will have an effect on hearts.
AMY GOODMAN: Sister Helen Prejean, can you say what’s going to happen today? You have walked many men to death row. What will happen when you get in your car right now, with Don Knight, and head over to the prison? What is the schedule of the day?
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: We get to the prison around 11:00 or a little bit before 11:00, because Don and another one of the lawyers are going to go be visiting with Richard from 11:00 to 1:00. I, with the other witnesses, will be put into a van and brought back to wait in a room, because we are the ones who are going to be witnesses for Richard. And they’re going to have a coffee pot going. They’re going to be polite to us. And they’re going to say, “Do you need anything? Here is everything you need,” as the Van Treeses are going to be brought to a room to wait. This is the moment of justice they’ve been promised.
AMY GOODMAN: The murder victim’s family.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: The murder victim’s family, right. And just the last time when Richard got a stay and they brought us back to the van, I looked across the way, and there was the Van Treese family being put into a van to be taken out of the prison. Look what happens to the victims’ families. They wait for this moment of justice. And then—and then they’re led out: “Sorry, not today. You’ll get your justice maybe in two weeks.” And it’s unlike anything I know to describe to you.
I know what the lawyers have filed with the Supreme Court. I know of Justice Breyer’s strong dissent when they did the lethal injection thing on the Glossip case. I can only hope that they are persuaded by the arguments and don’t just fall back behind procedure and say, “This should have been filed much sooner,” which is what the Court of Criminal Appeals did in Oklahoma: “Procedure bars you from raising these issues. We’ve already looked at these issues,” which meant they were impervious to look at the new information and the new facts, because procedure bars you from looking. I only hope that this court will have the heart and conscience to widen it, to see that to kill a human being, especially an innocent human being, is cruelty, it is torture, and it is against our noblest beliefs.
It’s like putting your boat on a wave, and you ride it, to let the time fill up as we’re waiting, as I’m waiting. They have a bathroom in that place, where you can go and have a little privacy. And I plan to retreat to that little place of privacy as often as I can.
AMY GOODMAN: Don Knight, let me end with you. Of course, I’m sure many people are asking, how are you presenting innocence at the last possible minute?
DON KNIGHT: Well, Justin Sneed is the key to this whole case. He has always been the key to this whole case. The truth of the matter is, he was a 19-year-old, meth-addicted person with a criminal history. He is not the kind of person that you would have ever counted on to do anything. If you would have asked him to take some money to the bank for you, you would know categorically that he would not get that money to the bank, that he would use it for himself. He was not a reliable person when he was 19. He is still not reliable, in the latest interview that he gave just within the last two weeks. It’s disgusting, really, to think that we are going to—today, maybe—kill a man based upon the word of someone that no one would count on under any circumstances. And that’s what we’re facing today, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Don Knight, one of Richard Glossip’s pro bono attorneys, he’ll be with Richard Glossip today, has also appealed the case to the Supreme Court in this last minute. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, will be accompanying Richard Glossip on whatever it is that happens today. And, of course, we’ll keep you updated, even after this broadcast, at democracynow.org.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the former secretary of labor, Robert Reich. Stay with us.