Richard Glossip is fighting for his life because an admitted murderer facing the death penalty invented a story to dodge a death sentence. Oklahoma caught and convicted the killer. But they’re still trying to execute the man they initially arrested, even though the evidence never added up.
In 1997, Justin Sneed beat Barry Van Treese to death with a baseball bat at an Oklahoma City motel. All along, the question has been, was this a bizarre murder-for-hire plot in which a motel employee went alone to kill the owner on the orders of the manager, who thought he could cover up mismanagement and embezzlement and somehow take over running the motel if his boss was dead? Or was it a robbery planned by a hard-core meth addict that went horribly wrong? Sneed, under threat of his own death sentence, said it was the former, but the rest of the evidence pointed to a botched robbery.
The State sent Glossip to death row on the convoluted murder-for-hire theory with flimsy evidence, and details about the robbery plot were never fully investigated by anyone and remained scarce. But as facts have come to light through new investigation, the botched-robbery version, and Glossip’s innocence, has emerged as the only plausible explanation.
2. Sneed's made-up story
Justin Sneed was under arrest for first-degree murder. Before they asked him any questions about the crime, the detectives let him know what they wanted to hear:
Detective: Well, they’ve made you the scapegoat in this. You know, 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: No. I didn’t know that.
Detective: Yeah. He’s under arrest, too.
Detective: So he’s the one – he’s putting it on you the worst. Now, I think that there’s more to this than just you being by yourself and I would like for you to tell me what—how this got started and what happened.
After they prompted him repeatedly, Sneed finally said, “Okay. Rich told me that he would split what money we could get out of Barry.” He then described his crime in detail that matched the physical evidence. At the end, he seemed to remember he was supposed to be implicating Rich:
Sneed: Actually, Rich asked me to kill Barry and that’s what he’d done, yes.
Detective: Rich asked you to kill Barry?
Sneed: Yes. So that he could run the motel without him being the boss.
That was the only explanation they got for why Rich Glossip, who regularly had access to tens of thousands of dollars in cash as the manager of the motel, would have wanted Barry Van Treese killed. The motive made no sense—it was invented on the spot by a strung-out teenager trying to get out from under a capital murder charge—but they had an answer on tape and that was good enough for them.
Prosecutors filed capital charges against Sneed, and then told him they would withdraw the death penalty if he’d tell the story again, to a jury in the capital trial of Richard Glossip.
3. The truth about Justin Sneed
Prosecutors told the jury Sneed was a meek, vulnerable guy. One even told them “it’s as if Justin Sneed was a Rottweiler puppy, let’s say 11 months old.” The jury never heard the truth:
- Sneed was addicted to methamphetamine, and was so heavily into it by the time of the murder that he was shooting it directly into his veins. Meth is well known for making people behave in violent and irrational ways.
- Sneed was regularly involved in drug deals at the motel. In fact, the police had recently been investigating his drug activities there.
- Sneed had a warrant out for his arrest in Texas, so he took a job with the roofing company to get out of town and even changed his last name to “Taylor.”
- After he was arrested, Sneed bragged to multiple people about what he’d done to Rich Glossip, and asked fellow inmates to lie in court to support his story.
State’s case depended heavily on Sneed’s testimony. How could the jury know what to think of him without hearing about who he was?
4. Lawyers asleep at the wheel
The lawyer who represented Rich at his first trial was so terrible that the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously overturned the conviction, identifying what they called a “glaring deficiency” and multiple examples of “unreadiness,” and saying there was “no excuse.” The court was especially shocked that he never showed the jury the video of the detectives leading Justin Sneed into the statements they wanted him to make and never pointed out all the ways his story had changed.
The lawyers he got for the do-over were no better. They didn’t call a single witness in Rich’s defense. And incredibly, after the appeals court had chastised the first lawyer for failing to show the jury the video, these lawyers didn’t show it to them either. The appeals court later said that meant either the attorneys had intentionally thrown the case, or they must have had some good reason—because it was beyond belief that they would neglect the tape a second time. Yet that’s exactly what they did.
None of these lawyers ever investigated the other, much more logical explanation: that Sneed had planned to rob Van Treese. They never collected the evidence and they didn’t even try to explain it to the jury.
5. What are the Prosecutors hiding?
Why won’t prosecutors let Rich’s lawyers see their file?
- Pro bono defense lawyers asked to see what the Oklahoma County DA’s office has on the case. The DA won’t show them.
- Witnesses came forward challenging the state’s story. The DA had them arrested. On September 15, 2015, as the State of Oklahoma prepared for the third time to execute Rich Glossip, his lawyers filed an affidavit from a witness who had just come forward casting serious doubt on Justin Sneed’s story. Over the next several days, prosecutors tried increasingly desperately to contact the witness, culminating in his arrest at gunpoint. Prosecutors then interrogated him about his affidavit. A second witness came forward on September 21; two days later, he, too, had a warrant out for his arrest. Why doesn’t the DA want these witnesses to be heard?
- Police destroyed evidence. After Rich was tried the first time, prosecutors sent the evidence they’d used to make their case to the appeals court as part of the review. Everything else—the stuff they didn’t find useful in securing a conviction—they gave back to the police, who promptly destroyed it.
These items were taken from the crime scene, and no defense expert ever saw them. What were the prosecutors afraid they might find?
- The defense has never been allowed to see the only surveillance video they ever obtained, from the gas station across the street, because the prosecutor thought it did not have “any evidentiary value.”
- The widow made a spreadsheet she said was a “summary” of the motel’s records for 1996; she said the actual records were lost in a flood. This spreadsheet was mischaracterized by the prosecution as evidence of embezzlement. There is no evidence of embezzlement according to expert review.
- The Oklahoma County DA’s office was run for 21 years—through Rich’s first trial—by “Cowboy Bob” Macy, who resigned in the wake of a false-evidence scandal and who had a long history of breaking the rules to secure death sentences; Oklahoma courts overturned several of his death sentences because of misconduct. Things haven’t improved; in 2013, an Oklahoma County prosecutor was suspended by the Oklahoma Supreme Court for hiding evidence helpful to the defense and coercing witnesses in two death penalty cases. In 2014, two more prosecutors were fired and publicly censured for failing to alert the defense when an important witness made statements that undercut the state’s case.
- Oklahoma County convicts innocent people. The National Registry of Exonerations has documented ten wrongful convictions from just this one county. Four of them included documented official misconduct; seven involved the use of false or misleading evidence. Two of the exonerees were on death row; three more were serving life sentences.
6. Why didn't police investigate?
- More than 40 people were at or around the motel or talked to Barry Van Treese the night he was killed. Oklahoma City Police interviewed just 11 of them. There were at least 20 registered motel guests that night; the police talked to 3.
- The police ended their investigation of this case after Sneed’s arrest and a total of 10 days. Uninterested in finding out the truth, they looked only for evidence to support their conclusion. They wanted their arrest to be right.
- Investigators decided early on to pursue exclusively the theory that the murder was related to employees embezzling from the motel, but they never formally interviewed Van Treese’s wife who served as the motel’s bookkeeper, or anyone else involved in running the motel. They never collected the motel’s books, bank records, or tax returns. They never consulted an accountant.
- Police collected dozens of fingerprints from the scene, but the only tests they ever ran were to compare them against Sneed, Glossip, and the victim—they never checked for matches to anybody else. They found lots of Justin Sneed’s prints. They also found several unidentified prints, but never looked for the person who might have made them. Many of these items were destroyed without ever being examined by a defense expert.
- Detectives sent 54 items to their serology lab to look for blood, but they only blood they found on any of it was consistent with the victim’s. When they belatedly attempted DNA analysis several years after the fact, they only checked for Van Treese’s DNA.
7. The truth uncovered
Most recent high-profile exonerations involve DNA testing. In cases based on physical forensic evidence, a DNA test can conclusively refute the theory used to convict. That doesn’t help in a case built only on unreliable testimony. But there is a lesson to learn from all the DNA exonerations: the system convicts innocent people. The DNA cases have provided a window into the unreliability of the process.
The prosecutors presented a convoluted story that makes little sense. Rich’s lawyers never tried to figure out what really happened, so the prosecutors’ unlikely story was the only story the jury ever heard. But there is another, much simpler explanation that explains the pieces of evidence that never added up.
Since the airing of Killing Richard Glossip, and throughout the 5 year moratorium on execution in Oklahoma, Rich’s defense team has worked tirelessly to do the investigation that should have been done starting in 1997. Since then, witnesses have continued to come forward, and the evidence has mounted: this was not the convoluted embezzlement scheme the prosecutors presented. It was a simple drug-fueled robbery gone wrong.
Stay tuned for details about the evidence now confirming that the murder of Barry Van Treese was a simple botched robbery that had nothing to do with Rich Glossip…