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Innocence question cuts at Glossip’s death penalty appeal

The Supreme Court will consider if evidence that could prove Richard Glossip’s innocence is enough to prevent his execution.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In 2015, Justice Stephen Breyer penned a dissent that would shape his legacy. The death penalty, Breyer wrote, “is the antithesis of the rule of law” because there is convincing evidence that innocent people have been executed. 

The man at the center of that case was Richard Glossip — whose 1998 conviction is again before the Supreme Court, leaving the justices with a question that could shape the future of the death penalty in this country. 

“The Richard Glossip case is a case that could push the death penalty over the edge,” Robert Dunham, an adjunct professor of death penalty law at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, said in a phone call. “If the entire country sees a man who objectively appears to be innocent and the court system that says we don't care.” 

Glossip’s case stands as both analogous to other innocence claims and as an anomaly. Many people on death row maintain their innocence but struggle to prove it in court. Glossip’s case for exoneration is supported, however, by an almost 400-page independent report. The Oklahoma attorney general believes Glossip’s conviction cannot be upheld. Even proponents of the death penalty have come to Glossip’s aid, claiming their position on the issue will shift if his execution moves forward. 

Cases before the Supreme Court focus on legal questions, but Glossip has brought the justices an unusual case. He has a mountain of evidence that has the potential to overturn his conviction but that might not matter if his legal questions do not meet the high court’s bar. 

“This is now up before the Supreme Court on a bare innocence issue,” Richard Dieter, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, said in a phone call. “There's also legal issues of evidence not turned over, but it presents the court with a problem of what to do if there's a lot of evidence about someone's innocence, but the legal challenges have now expired.” 

There is no dispute over who murdered motel owner Barry Van Treese. When he was 19, Justin Sneed bludgeoned Van Treese in a room at the Best Budget Inn property in Oklahoma City. Sneed, who was addicted to methamphetamine, then stole thousands of dollars from Van Treese’s car. 

Sneed was arrested a week after the murder. Investigators said they knew he killed Van Treese but that he had help. Glossip, the hotel’s manager at the time, was also arrested. 

During the first 20 minutes of Sneed’s interview with police, officers brought up Glossip six times. Detectives repeatedly attempted to get Sneed to adopt the theory that Glossip was the mastermind of the case. At one point, an officer told Sneed: “So he’s the one” — referring to Glossip — and continued, “Rich is trying to save himself by saying that you’re in this by yourself.” 

When Sneed finally implicated Glossip in the murder, his story changed during the interview with detectives. He first claimed Glossip told him to rob Van Treese, but not kill him. Then Sneed said Glossip actually asked him to kill Van Treese. 

The state originally arrested Glossip on accessory charges for allegedly attempting to cover up the murder. Those charges were dropped, however, after Sneed was arrested and Glossip was then charged as Sneed’s co-defendant. 

Glossip maintained his innocence, declining an opportunity to get the state to drop the death penalty. Meanwhile Sneed took up the state’s offer and agreed to testify against Glossip. Oklahoma dropped the death penalty against Sneed. 


There is no physical or forensic evidence connecting Glossip to Van Treese’s murder. Oklahoma also had no other witnesses connecting Glossip to the crime. Sneed’s testimony was the only factor linking Glossip to the crime. 

A jury convicted Glossip of murder-for-hire in 1998, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in a 3-2 vote. 

In his 25 years on death row, Glossip has never wavered in his claims of innocence, despite coming within hours of execution not once but three times. He was successful in proving that his first attorney failed to provide him with a minimal defense in 2000. But before his second trial could begin, Glossip’s case was being undermined by the police department. 

An independent investigation into Glossip’s case found that the district attorney’s office directed the police department to destroy key pieces of evidence, including potentially exculpatory financial documents. The investigation found the destruction of the evidence by a 28-year veteran on the force was deliberate. 

Sneed testified at Glossip’s second trial, resulting in another death penalty conviction. Decades would pass before a memo would be disclosed to Glossip’s attorneys suggesting Sneed’s testimony was altered by prosecutors because it contradicted the facts of the state’s case against Glossip. The evidence turned over to Glossip’s defense team also included a statement indicating Sneed wanted to recant his testimony. 

In recent months, Glossip’s attorneys were given a final box of evidence from the state containing a memo that proved Sneed was being treated for a serious psychiatric disorder when he testified against Glossip. He was prescribed lithium at the time. This directly contradicts Sneed’s statements that he was not seeing a psychiatrist at the time. 

In April Oklahoma’s attorney general filed a motion to vacate Glossip’s conviction in light of the independent investigation into his case. Attorney General Gentner Drummond said he could no longer stand behind the conviction. Members of the state Legislature have also come out against Glossip’s conviction. 

“It’s incredibly rare that two out of three branches of government say that there has been a wrong here that needs to be righted,” John Mills, an attorney with Phillips Black representing Glossip, said in a phone call. 

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals nevertheless upheld Glossip’s conviction. The state pardon and parole board then rejected his clemency request. 

“The one branch tasked with actually righting the wrong is refusing to do it,” Mills said. “That's just not the way accountability generally works. If the parties are in agreement about there being a wrong, courts will enforce those agreements. That's the way our judicial system works, but it's not happening.” 

Death penalty experts say the courts’ rulings against Glossip are, in part, a function of how the U.S. legal system operates. 

“It goes back to the very structure of our justice system, and that is that innocence and guilt are determined as a kind of a factual matter by the jury who vote unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt that the facts say the person's guilty,” Dieter said. “What you bring up on appeal are legal issues.” 

Glossip has in the past and is currently bringing legal issues on appeal, but they can be rejected as not sufficient to overturn a conviction. 

In the time between when a death sentence is handed down and carried out, however, a lot can happen. New evidence can be uncovered, possibly with evolving technological innovations. Witnesses can recant testimony. These factors complicate death penalty appeals that may have already exhausted presentable legal issues when the new evidence is uncovered. 

“So many things now can require that a case be looked at, not just for legal problems but for the actual factual case of innocence,” Dieter said. 

Dieter contends that this problem extends past just Glossip’s case and has never been resolved by the courts. 

“It's a fundamental problem for the death penalty system, and it's come up occasionally before but never been completely resolved,” Dieter said. 

In some ways, Glossip represents one of the lucky innocence appeals. The independent review of his case involved a team of more than 30 attorneys, three investigators and two paralegals. They spent over 3,000 hours pouring over tens of thousands of documents and interviewing 36 witnesses. And even with that advantage, it’s still not clear Glossip’s conviction can be overturned. 

“The courts typically don't give defendants access to this evidence,” Dunham said. “That's one of the reasons the courts are so ineffective at protecting people who are innocent.” 

Just last term, the Supreme Court said when, considering ineffective-assistance claims, federal courts cannot consider new evidence outside of what is presented in state courts. 

“The only place to get the evidence presented and your claims heard is federal court, but last year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shinn vs. Ramirez said that you're stuck if you're a state court prisoner with the evidence that was presented in state court,” Dunham said. “If you've been given incompetent lawyers, how on earth can you prevail in federal court if you're stuck with the evidence that they never investigated or never presented? So what we really have are words saying that there are heightened procedural safeguards, but the Supreme Court has closed the courthouse door.” 

Glossip is scheduled to be executed on May 18. He has asked the Supreme Court in a rare unopposed emergency application to block his execution. He is also asking the Supreme Court to review the merits of his legal claims in the hopes that his convictions can be reconsidered in light of the evidence supporting his innocence claims. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Law

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