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As execution looms, death row inmate still maintains innocence in 1997 killing

Tim Farley / Red Dirt Report
Defense attorney Don Knight.
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Attorney: Death penalty system only for 'worst of the worst'

OKLAHOMA CITY – Richard Glossip insists he’s an innocent man who’s about to die from lethal injection because he’s been framed by police investigators, prosecutors and the real killer.

That’s the message his new attorneys, working on a pro bono basis, asserted during a press conference Monday at the state Capitol. A group known as the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty organized the event as lead attorney Don Knight detailed many of the weaknesses in the case against Glossip.

However, the fact remains that Glossip – unless some legal miracle occurs – will be executed Sept. 16 for the brutal killing of Barry Van Treese who was beaten with a baseball bat Jan. 7, 1997, at the Best Budget Inn, which he owned. Glossip was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to die, but that conviction was overturned because of ineffective counsel.

Glossip was convicted again in 2004 and sentenced to death by a second Oklahoma County jury. However, Glossip, now 51, has maintained his innocence.

Knight claims the killer, Justin Sneed, confessed to police and then implicated Glossip as the mastermind behind the attack. Sneed told Oklahoma City police he was paid by Glossip to kill Van Treese because he was worried for his job. Glossip managed the Best Budget Inn, and according to prosecutors, was concerned he might be fired because of financial shortages at the motel.

“He will be executed in 65 days so that shows how much Oklahoma cares about the innocence of Richard Glossip,” said Knight, whose criminal defense practice is in Littleton, Colo.

Knight became involved in the case after receiving a telephone call from Sister Helen Prejean, a strong opponent of the death penalty.

“As I began to look at this case, I have to admit chills ran down my spine. This was clearly not in the league to be a death penalty case. This was a deeply flawed investigation from the start,” he said, asserting that other possible suspects were ignored by Oklahoma City homicide detectives.

Knight specifically mentioned Richard Page, a man with an extensive criminal history and an Arkansas murder conviction, Glossip’s brother, Bobby Glossip, “who dealt drugs and had a violent past,” and Richard Barrett who served prison time and showed a history of violence. All three men had been at the motel when Van Treese was killed.

Still, Knight admitted that Glossip made mistakes which ultimately found him on the wrong end of a first-degree murder charge. According to Knight, Glossip initially lied to investigators about when he last saw Van Treese.

“That does not mean he had knowledge of the homicide,” the attorney said. “But that’s when they (police) began to focus on Richard.”

According to Knight, the admitted killer Sneed embellished his story at each of the two trials for Glossip, exaggerating the amount of money Glossip reportedly paid him to kill Van Treese.

“The death penalty is for the worst of the worst and in this case the prosecution relied solely on the testimony of one man who admits he’s a murderer and is in a medium-security prison,” Knight said.

Locating witnesses who were part of the original investigation has proven to be futile so far. At least two key witnesses have died and others have moved on.

“It’s difficult to piece together what happened so long ago,” Knight said, pleading for the public’s help. “We need people to tell us things we don’t already know. Whether you’re for the death penalty or not, I think there’s one thing we can agree on. No one wants to see an innocent man die at the hands of the state.”

If enough credible evidence can’t be found soon enough, Glossip will die from lethal injection, a fate that Knight claims is not justified in this case.

“The jury got it wrong because they’re human, too,” he said.

Last year, six death row inmates nationwide were exonerated, but other innocent men have died at the hands of the state, Knight said.

Drugs and death

Last month, Glossip was among three Oklahoma death row inmates who objected to the use of the sedative midazolam, which is part of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injection executions. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the inmates.

However, Justice Stephen Breyer used the case as an opportunity to express his disdain for capital punishment.

In his dissent in the midazolam case, Breyer wrote, “Today's administration of the death penalty involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty's penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use. I shall describe each of these considerations, emphasizing changes that have occurred during the past four decades. For it is these changes, taken together with my own 20 years of experience on this Court, that lead me to believe that the death penalty, in and of itself, now likely constitutes a legally prohibited 'cruel and unusual punishment.'

Sister Prejean, also appearing at Monday’s press conference, said the chances are “overwhelming” that Glossip will not get another court hearing.

But, she maintains, Glossip is innocent.

“I have met Richard Glossip and I know Richard Glossip. He should not die,” she said. “The death penalty you say you believe in is not the one Oklahoma has. This is what they mean by the brokenness (of the death penalty system). All that information presented by Don (Knight) never made it to trial.”

The lack of forensic evidence did not deter police and prosecutors from charging Glossip, Knight said. The inmate’s fingerprints were not found anywhere in the motel room where Van Treese died and the baseball bat used to kill him was never recovered. In fact, Sneed’s fingerprints were only ones found on money Glossip reportedly paid him for the killing.

Knight disclosed during the press conference that one of his colleagues interviewed Sneed in prison, but declined to comment what was learned during that meeting. At times, Knight appeared to defend Sneed, saying he “struggled” and “had a hard life.”

“He (Sneed) had a lot of reason” to confess and implicate Glossip, Knight said, an apparent reference to investigative techniques used by Oklahoma City homicide detective Bob Bemo.

A story recently published by The Intercept disclosed that Sneed’s videotaped confession was not introduced into evidence. According to The Intercept’s story, jurors would have heard Bemo tell Sneed that he should reconsider his situation, claiming that police knew he did not act alone.

According to the videotaped confession, Bemo told Sneed, “Everybody is saying you’re the one that did this and you did it by yourself and I don’t believe that. You know Rich is under arrest, don’t you?”

Sneed replied he was unaware Glossip was in custody.

“So he’s the one,” Bemo told Sneed. “He’s putting it on you the worst.”

Bemo reportedly told Sneed he could easily walk him to the jail and book him for Van Treese’s killing.

“And you would be facing this thing on your own,” the detective said. “And I don’t think it’s just you.”

Sneed then cooperated, confessed to the killing and blamed Glossip for planning it. Sneed is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole. According to Oklahoma law, a person accused of murder in a killing for hire scheme is eligible for the death penalty even if they did not commit the crime.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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