Egged On By Detectives to Tell Them What They Wanted to Hear, Justin Sneed Made Up a Story to Save Himself, and Sent an Innocent Man to Death Row
Richard Glossip’s conviction and death sentence were based primarily on a story that was made up by the admitted killer, Justin Sneed, after detectives told Sneed to implicate Glossip or be left “holding the bag” for first degree murder–which would have resulted in his own execution.
At the time of the murder, Justin Sneed was a 19-year-old meth addict and known thief who, as a new witness will testify, had a habit of sneaking into motel rooms while prostitutes were engaged with johns and robbing them. Sneed’s desperate need to support his expensive meth habit gave him a clear motive to rob Barry Van Treese. At the beginning of Sneed’s first police interview, Oklahoma City Detectives Bob Bemo and Bill Cook ask Sneed to tell them what happened at the motel:
Sneed: “I don’t really know what to say about that.”
Sneed says nothing about Glossip until Detective Bemo introduces Glossip’s name into the interrogation. The Detectives feed Sneed numerous bits of information, and continually lie to Sneed by stating that multiple people are blaming him for the murder when, in truth, only Richard Glossip had mentioned to detectives that Sneed might have had something to do with it. Detectives tell Sneed they think he killed Van Treese and had an accomplice, and that if he didn’t name his accomplice, he’d be left “holding the bag” for the murder.
Detective: Everybody that we talked to they’re putting it on you, okay? They’re putting the whole thing on you and they’re going to leave you holding the bag.
In other words, if you just said you don’t want to talk to us and you want to talk to an attorney we would march you down to the jail and we would book you in for this charge and you would be facing this thing on your own. And I don’t think it’s just you. I think there are more people involved and you can straighten out a lot of things. And I just don’t think you should take the whole thing…
Detectives then suggest who Sneed could share the blame with.
…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.
Sneed then changes his story and admits he was involved, but he was only trying to rob Van Treese, and that had been Rich Glossip’s idea.
Detective: Well now I’m not talking about — now you’re talking about maybe setting up a robbery at the motel and then having Rich give a bad description and split the money?
Sneed: Yeah, I guess, something like that. I really don’t know what they —
Detective: Well, Rich told us you came to him with that idea.
He also insisted he hadn’t meant to kill Van Treese.
Sneed: And after everything kind of got out of control we transported the car over to the bank parking lot.
Detective: Well, now wait a minute. . . you go into the room. Go back to that and tell us what happens. . .
Sneed: And then I just really meant to just knock him out, you know.
Sneed then describes his crime in detail, largely matching the physical evidence. At the end of this part of the story, he seems to remember he is supposed to be implicating Richard Glossip, but apparently forgets how he had initially tried to bring Richard into it. He then changes his story yet again to say Glossip actually asked him to kill Van Treese, not just rob him.
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.
This is the only explanation detectives get for why Glossip, who regularly had access to tens of thousands of dollars in cash as motel manager, and was never accused of stealing a penny, would have wanted Van Treese killed. It makes no sense as a motive (why would killing their boss give an employee control over the motel?) but sounds more like a story made up on the spot by a teenaged meth addict (who evidence suggests was high during the police interrogation) and thief with a criminal record trying to avoid a capital murder charge. But by the end of the interrogation, the police have an answer on tape, and that’s good enough for them. They conduct no further investigation into the crime.
At the end of the interrogation, Sneed asks about the maximum penalty for Murder 1 in Oklahoma and, after Bemo tells him it is death, the dectective reassures Sneed that the story he had finally landed on against Glossip will save him from death row.
Detective: I’m going to tell you this, your old bud, Rich, was planning on letting you hang by yourself for this.
Sneed: Well, I ain’t going to hang by myself.
Soon after, prosecutors file capital murder charges against Sneed, but tell him they will withdraw the death penalty if he’ll testify for the state in a capital trial against Glossip. Sneed’s testimony helps secure Glossip’s death sentence, even though in subsequent trials, his story continues to change. Read more about Sneed’s changing story here.