On Richard Glossip: Oklahoma would rather kill than admit wrongdoing

November 30, 2022

The recent ruling of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Richard Glossip has troubled me and should trouble every Oklahoman. Not just because we may kill an innocent man, but because a system run this way could allow this to happen to any of us.

Glossip was convicted of hiring his co-worker, Justin Sneed, to murder their employer, Barry Van Treese. There has never been any question that Sneed murdered Van Treese. Glossip, who had never been convicted of any felony or violent crime, was only accused of the murder after Sneed, under questioning from detectives, told them Glossip paid him to do it. Sneed then got a deal that spared him the death penalty in exchange for his testimony. Glossip’s lawyers put on no defense, and the jury convicted him of the murder, then sentenced him to death. He is now scheduled to be executed on Feb. 16, 2023.

At issue before the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals was substantial new evidence showing that Sneed’s testimony implicating Glossip was a lie. That evidence, much of which was discovered by Glossip’s lawyers over the past seven years and has never been heard by any juror, was detailed in a 343-page report from Reed Smith, the international law firm an ad hoc group of my colleagues in the Legislature commissioned to independently investigate the case.

The report also showed that, before Glossip’s 2004 retrial, the police or prosecutors purposely destroyed a box of evidence and lost a crucial video that could have rebutted key contentions of the prosecution’s case. The defense recently found new evidence, long hidden by the state, that the trial prosecutor improperly worked to change crucial aspects of Sneed’s testimony to match trial evidence that would have conflicted with Sneed’s story. The state even says it has documents in its file it still will not allow defense attorneys see. One is left to conclude that the state would rather kill an innocent man than admit it got this wrong.

In its recent shameful decision, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals dismisses the new witnesses — who independently corroborate one another — as simply being “jailhouse informers, drug dealers, exotic dancers, and residents of the Best Budget Inn” as if these facts make them inherently unbelievable. Of course, the most critical witness the state has is Sneed, who is himself an admitted murderer, heavy drug user and was a resident of the Best Budget Inn. Another state’s witness, Cliff Everhart, was convicted of lying on an official document when he was a law enforcement officer. Crediting them, while dismissing the new witnesses without even letting them testify, is the worst kind of double standard.

If a case depends on which witnesses are telling the truth and which are lying, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is supposed to send it to a trial court, which can hear all the testimony and then decide. That limited step is what 61 of my fellow legislators and I called for. Instead, with a man’s life on the line, the court summarily cast aside more than a dozen sworn statements and refused to let a single witness be heard — an attempt to sweep these major failings under the rug. We shouldn’t fall for it.

Sadly, if the court (which is Oklahoma’s only criminal appellate court) cannot grant a hearing on this flimsy death penalty conviction, my confidence as a legislator in our state’s judicial system, and its ability to make just decisions and take responsibility for its failures, has been destroyed. Oklahoma has a sad history of pushing cases through the full judicial process and declaring them final and over, only to have many convicted men later exonerated when DNA evidence proved their innocence. Undeniably, this system has failed before; we cannot insist everything is fine just because we went through the process. Who will take responsibility for this travesty? Where is the backbone that will stand for justice? The members of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals have let us all down. I pray new leadership in the offices of the attorney general and Oklahoma County district attorney find the strength to do what is needed to right this terrible wrong. We cannot kill an innocent man!

Read the op-ed in The Oklahoman.