Oklahoma Plans to Execute Richard Glossip Today Despite Doubts About His Guilt

The high-profile case has put the spotlight on America's fondness for killing criminals even in the face of dozens of death row exonerations and serious questions about the drugs used in lethal injections.

by Gavin Jenkins
Sep 30 2015, 4:40pm

Richard Glossip is slated to die at 3 PM Wednesday. Photo via

UPDATE: Glossip got a 37-day stay from Governor Mary Fallin on Wednesday afternoon.

When Richard Glossip's execution was stayed on September 16, it was the third time the 52-year-old escaped lethal injection. On Monday, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decided there shouldn't be a fourth: In a 3-2 decision, judges denied Glossip's requests for a new hearing and a further stay.

He is scheduled to die at 3 PM local time barring a last-minute intervention by the US Supreme Court.

"We're disappointed by the decision," Don Knight, one of Glossip's attorneys, told VICE Tuesday. "But we are heartened by having two judges come along with us. Hopefully, [the Supreme Court] will grant us a stay."

Glossip is on death row for the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese, owner of the Oklahoma City Best Budget Inn Glossip managed. Justin Sneed, then a 19-year-old maintenance man, beat Van Treese to death with an aluminum baseball bat in his room, then testified that Glossip paid him to carry out the murder. Despite plenty of questions about Sneed's credibility, Oklahoma officials appear determined to execute him. The case has shined a spotlight on America's troublesome fondness for killing criminals in the face of dozens of death row exonerations over the years, as well as Oklahoma's own history of using unregulated, dubiously-sourced drugs in lethal injections.

On Sunday, Glossip's legal team spent close to 20 hours compiling a list of all the lies they believe Sneed, whose testimony is basically the only evidence against him, has spread over the years. One of the main points they zeroed in on was the man's drug use: Citing transcripts of Sneed's interrogation by police and his testimony at Glossip's second trial—the first was thrown out because his attorneys were wildly incompetent—they detail contradictions, and also accuse the police of giving Sneed lithium while in custody.

"First [Sneed] testifies that he took meth two days prior to the murder, and admits that the effects lasted for days," Glossip's attorneys wrote. "Unprompted, he says the police give him lithium but he doesn't know why. Then six years later testifies that he didn't do any drugs after Christmas, 1996."

Last year, Sneed's daughter wrote Oklahoma parole officials indicating she believes he lied about Glossip being involved to avoid being executed himself.

But Judge David Lewis sees Sneed as credible, and in his majority ruling for the court on Monday, he wrote that Glossip "merely wants more time so he can develop evidence." He also argued that the new evidence presented to the court only "expands on theories raised on direct appeal and in the original application for post-conviction relief."

Glossip, who has always maintained his innocence, made international headlines two weeks ago when the court granted him a stay hours before he was set to die. Since then, the rhetorical combat between Glossip's team and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has heated up. Defense attorneys accuse Prater of intimidating new witnesses, while Prater has called Glossip's team and their witnesses liars.

Michael Scott is one of those witnesses. He served time with Sneed at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, a medium security prison, and after watching an episode of Dr. Phil dedicated to the case, he reached out to Glossip's team and signed an affidavit stating that he heard Sneed brag about setting up Glossip.

"I specifically remember Justin on the top run with a couple of other inmates, fixing some food, and laughing with them about setting Richard Glossip up for a crime Richard didn't do," Scott says in the affidavit. "It was almost like Justin was bragging about what he had done to this other guy—Richard Glossip. Justin was happy and proud of himself for selling Richard Glossip out."

As the Intercept reported, last week, Scott was arrested in Claremore, Oklahoma, for a probation violation stemming from a DUI and marijuana possession charge. He had failed to pay a fine and complete community service, but in court documents, he said he was taken to the Claremore Police Department, where—while still in handcuffs—Prater and an investigator interrogated him about Glossip without letting him speak to a lawyer. Scott also alleged that he was questioned about his personal life, including prescription drugs his mother is taking, which Scott says they could not have known unless someone entered the home where he was arrested.

Prater did not return phone calls or reply to emails for this story. But he's previously accused Glossip's team of a "bullshit PR campaign" that was intended to "abolish the death penalty in this state and throughout the country."

Capital punishment abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, who tried to spare Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and wrote the book Dead Man Walking, helped Glossip assemble his new legal team. The media frenzy surrounding the case seemed to peak on Thursday, when stories about Pope Francis's call for a "global abolition" to the death penalty while speaking to a joint meeting of Congress referenced Glossip, as well as two other inmates slated to die this week. (Virginia is planning to kill Alfredo Prieto on Thursday and Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner early Wednesday morning.)

Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, was reminded of the Pontiff's words as she reacted to Glossip losing his latest bid for life.

"Pope Francis was very clear: The death penalty is inconsistent with our values," she told VICE. "We certainly have enough to care for the life of an individual and not go forward with a decision with so much doubt around it."

Those sentiments were echoed by the dissenting judges. Judge Carlene Smith wrote that she would grant a 60-day stay and allow for an evidentiary hearing. "While finality of judgment is important," she wrote, "the State has no interest in executing an actually innocent man." In her own dissent, Judge Arlene Johnson questioned the fairness of Glossip's trial.

Oklahoma law enforcement has its defenders. On Monday, the Oklahoman editorial board wrote that Glossip "not only failed it immediately tell police investigators he knew who killed Van Treese, but gave conflicting statements that impeded the investigation. In short, for a supposedly innocent man, Glossip did plenty to look guilty."

Of course, looking guilty and actually commissioning a hit are not the same thing. And even if you think Glossip should be put to death, one of the drugs Oklahoma will pump into his body—the sedative Midazolam—apparently doesn't result in pain-free deaths. An Oklahoma inmate executed with the drug in January said "My body is on fire." Clayton D. Lockett, another Oklahoma inmate killed with the drug in April 2014, regained consciousness during the provedure and seemed to be in immense pain. But the Supreme Court ruled in June that the drug is fair game after Glossip and other inmates tried to block it from being used on them, understandably terrified of its effects.

Whether the justices think Glossip—whose story they should remember from the Midazolam case—should be exposed to the same risk of ugly death remains to be seen.

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Criminal Justice
Death Penalty
Capital Punishment
Vice Blog
Richard Glossip
Wrongful execution
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater