Talking to an Attorney for the Oklahoma Death Row Inmate Who Just Avoided Execution

VICE spoke with attorney Don Knight about Richard Glossip, who last week found out he would not be executed just hours before it was scheduled.

by Gavin Jenkins
Sep 21 2015, 5:00pm

Photo courtesy Don Knight

Don Knight is one of three attorneys trying to save Richard Glossip's life. Last week, Glossip, 52, was granted a two-week stay of execution by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals about two hours before he was set to die.

Knight is a Colorado-based attorney with 15 years of experience in death penalty cases. In June, Sister Helen Prejean, the famous capital punishment abolitionist who tried to spare Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and wrote the book Dead Man Walking, asked him to help with Glossip's case.

Glossip is on death row because of a murder that occurred on January 7, 1997, when a man named Justin Sneed entered Room 102 at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City and beat owner Barry Van Treese to death with a baseball bat. Sneed, then a 19-year-old maintenance man at the motel, testified at two trials that Glossip, the motel manager, paid him to carry out the murder. But Glossip has always maintained his innocence, and Sneed's word has been the only evidence against him.

Knight, who has been working the case pro bono with fellow attorneys Kathleen Lord and Mark Olive, released new evidence earlier this month they say exonerates Glossip. Among the new evidence is a signed affidavit from Michael Scott, a former inmate who claims he heard Sneed say "he set Richard Glossip up, and that Richard Glossip didn't do anything." They also have a signed affidavit from Richard Barret, who frequented the Best Budget Inn to sell drugs to Glossip's brother, Bobby Glossip. Barret witnessed Snead trading items he stole from motel rooms and parked cars for drugs. Other new evidence includes analysis from Dr. Richard Leo, a false confessions expert who believes police pressured Sneed into blaming Glossip.

There might have been physical material that exonerated Glossip, but the Oklahoma City Police Department destroyed a box of evidence in 1999, before the appeal.

Still, not everyone is convinced that Glossip's case deserved another look. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater called the claims of new evidence a "bullshit public relations campaign"and accused Glossip's legal team, which has the support of Barry Scheck, Susan Sarandon, former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, and Senator Tom Coburn, of running a campaign to "abolish the death penalty in this state and throughout the country."

Knight, 57, said he has never worked a case that has received this much media coverage. VICE spoke with him about the case's national importance, Glossip's previous attorneys, and the moment when Glossip found out about the stay of execution that, for now at least, has saved his life.

VICE: You've been working on this case for a few months, and you've uncovered enough new evidence to warrant a stay. Why wasn't any of this brought to light during Richard Glossip's first two trials? How bad were his attorneys?
Don Knight: Wayne Fornarant, his first attorney, a privately retained lawyer. I believe he charged $2,500 to do the whole case. That's worse than a public defender. That's horrible. I wouldn't charge that for a DUI. He was an incompetent attorney, is basically what he was. So the whole first trial meant nothing. It truly meant nothing. It was so horrible that it really meant nothing, and it's hard for me to keep explaining that to people, to tell them Richard Glossip really didn't get two trials. He didn't. That first one was not a trial—it was just an accusation with evidence. There was no defense put up to it at all. It was just terrible, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals found it to be so and wiped it off the map.

So this canard that people put out there that there were two trials is just that—a canard. There's just nothing to it. There was one trial, and it was conducted by public defenders [named Silas Lyman and Wayne Woodyard], and these public defenders were bad public defenders. They did a terrible job. Horrible. No preparation. No investigation. They could have—they had the resources to do it. They just chose not to. They did a terrible job.

Then why, during your first press conference in July, did you go out of your way to not criticize Glossip's previous attorneys?
I glossed over it in my first press conference because I hadn't yet talked to the lawyers, or tried to talk to the lawyers. But today, I know what I'm doing, and I've been out there investigating and talking to the witnesses. And now I realize that witness after witness after witness wasn't talked to. And that is simply unacceptable to me. So now I feel fine to say Silas Lyman was a horrible lawyer. The other lawyer in the case, Wayne Woodyard, claims he was just second chair and only did what Silas Lyman told him to do. Look, I don't know—I'm not going to go there. All I know is neither of those lawyers did anything on this case, from what I can tell, to help in any way.

Besides the fact that many people believe your client to be innocent, why does this case stand out among other death penalty cases?
The most striking thing about this case, I think, is the choice of then-District Attorney Bob Macy to pursue death in the first place. Bob Macy was notorious. He sought death and got it 54 times. The death penalty in the United States is largely driven by district attorneys, and there are always little pockets of death. Oklahoma City during Bob Macy's time was one of those pockets of death, where you get these prosecutors who always seek it. In this case, whether Richard did it or not, the fact that he had no prior record of any kind whatsoever—that should have disqualified his case as being a death penalty case from the start.

The death penalty itself was thrown out in 1973 with Furman [v. Georgia] because it was arbitrary and most often times just used against black defendants. Thereafter the states were told to come up with a way to narrow the class of people and the types of crimes that could be used to seek the death penalty. But it hasn't worked, and if you read Justice [Stephen] Breyer's dissent in Glossip v Gross, you'll see how he talks about that. It hasn't worked because it can't work, and I think this case is a perfect example of why the death penalty can't work. Not when you have people like Bob Macy, who will seek it at any opportunity, who will always find a reason to seek it.

If they wanted to charge this as a murder case, then charge it as a murder case, but then that brings in the second problem with the death penalty: the fear of death as a hammer to get a plea deal. And prosecutors do that all the time: "Hey buddy, you better take this life deal and plead guilty or else we're going to seek the death penalty against you." Now, they offered Glossip a chance for a life plea, which basically means they didn't really think he deserved to die. Why offer it to him if you do? If you honestly believe that he is the worst of the worst, cannot even be safely housed in prison, if you honestly believe that's the kind of person he is, why would you give them the opportunity to plead guilty?

But also what they do is get a better jury. They rig the system in their favor. Because a death-qualified jury is a convicting jury. They're already past conviction and only worried about whether they're going to kill the person as a penalty. So the prosecutor wins both ways. Either you take the deal and we don't have to go to trial, and you go away for life even if you're innocent, or we get a better jury and are much more likely to get a conviction.

What do you make of District Attorney David Prater's accusations about all of this being a bullshit PR campaign to abolish the death penalty?
I let Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon and those kinds of people worry about that stuff. They're the ones being accused of running the PR campaign. I'm representing my client. The larger question of the death penalty can be on everyone's mind if they want to, but all I care about is my client. But even those who support the death penalty should be looking at this case and saying, "Not this case." If you have a dirty, stinking, rotten child killer, then that's what you want your death penalty for. You don't want this one. This makes the whole thing look bad. If you love the death penalty, this is the worst case in the world for you.

What was is it like when Glossip learned about the stay of execution?
We had been talking with him for an hour and 20 minutes. He's a very light-hearted guy, even in the face of death. He was joking about how he shared his last meal with the prison guards. He said, "I got plenty of food here. Let's make a party out of this." He's got a way of staying light in the moment. He told us his mom said he came into the world smiling and by God he was going to make sure he left the world smiling. We were having this conversation with him, and it was almost 12 o'clock. He kept wondering, "When is this court going to rule?" Kathleen and I both said, "I don't know." Then I said, "I do. They're going to rule right now." And they looked at me and said, "How would you know that?"

I said: "It's noon. It's lunchtime. They're going to get this done at lunchtime one way or another." They both looked at me funny and laughed.

Five minutes later, a knock on the door came. We hadn't been bothered before. The knock was certainly unexpected, and my heart jumped a little bit. They asked us to step out of the little room that we were in, and the associate warden told us, "There's been a stay." The next words out of his mouth were, "Now you have to go." They don't give you any time; well, my jacket was inside the room, and so was Kathleen's pad and pencil. So we had to jump back in the room, and we told him, "There's been a stay," and he yelled: "Hell yes!" He jumped up and down, and he hit the glass, and we hit the glass back. He was just so happy, but then we had to leave the room. Then we proceeded to leave the prison, not knowing the reason for the stay or how long it was; just knowing for the moment that there was a stay.

What would have been his last meal?
Pizza Hut pizza, pepperoni, I think, Long John Silver's fish and chips, and a Wendy's Baconator. That's why he said he could share it. I also don't think he was worried about watching his waistline.

What are your expectations for the next couple weeks? Where do you go from here?
I'm heading out to interview another witness. I think it's a pretty good witness, and if he pans out, we will be making another filing with the court. We have a response to file, a reply to the government's response to our petition. We'll make another filing with the court. From there, I don't know. I'm very much taking it one day at a time.

What's the outlook for this case?
Well, if I didn't have hope, I wouldn't be getting on a plane tomorrow morning and heading back to Oklahoma. I totally have hope. I always have hope. All I know how to do is keep working right up to the last minute, and that's all I'm going to keep doing.

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