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.