Dozens of Oklahoma lawmakers who support the death penalty on Thursday urged the state’s governor and parole board to pause before executing an accused murderer who has been on death row for 23 years.
Richard Glossip was convicted by two separate Oklahoma juries of paying another man to kill his boss, an Oklahoma City motel owner, in 1997. But new evidence has persuaded 34 legislators — including 28 Republicans — to urge Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt and others to take another look at the case.
“I’ve never done anything like this before because I favor the death penalty and I’m usually inclined to think if a guy has exhausted the whole process then he’s probably guilty, but I knew I had to do something,” said Republican state Rep. Kevin McDugle. “There’s no political points gained here in Oklahoma for this, I can assure you, and unfortunately I don’t know if what I’ve done will be enough. But after looking at Glossip’s case, I knew I had to do something.”
Mr. McDugle and the other lawmakers are convinced Glossip had nothing to do with the savage killing and robbery of motel owner Barry Van Treese in 1997. Instead, the motel maintenance man with a methamphetamine habit and a record of breaking into and stealing from rooms and cars at the motel —19-year-old Justin Sneed — did.
Sneed, who testified against Glossip, was convicted for his part in the murder. But in return for his cooperation, he has been serving his sentence in a medium-security prison that Mr. McDugle and others said is about the cushiest incarceration location in the state.
“We do not make this request lightly,” the legislators wrote in a letter dated May 17 but not delivered to Mr. Stitt until Thursday. “Many who have signed this letter support the death penalty but, as such, we have a moral obligation to make sure the state of Oklahoma never executes a person for a crime he did not commit.
“The prosecution’s case that put Mr. Glossip on death row has been called into serious question by compelling new witness statements and expert reports, along with other evidentiary problems, that can only be resolved by additional investigation and testing,” the letter said. “Killing Richard Glossip without certainty of his guilt will erode public trust, not only in capital punishment, but in the integrity and fairness of the entire Oklahoma criminal justice system.”
Glossip has been close to being executed before. In January 2015, he was waiting outside the execution chamber when Oklahoma injected another prisoner with what turned out to be the wrong chemicals. That prisoner, Charles Warner, died writhing in pain, according to witnesses, and the state halted future executions.
That nearly botched execution also made Glossip the named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma’s execution protocols, and while that case is decided, Glossip’s own lethal injection has been put on hold.
That same year, Helen Prejean, a Louisiana nun and famous death penalty opponent, contacted Denver lawyer Don Knight and asked him to take on Glossip’s case. Mr. Knight said he was appalled at what he learned.
“There is no question at all Glossip had nothing to do with this and he was poorly, poorly served by his lawyers in the past,” Knight said. “There’s no doubt in my mind if a jury or panel heard what we know now, he would be quickly acquitted.”
The governor’s office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the letter and the case.
Glossip was a manager of a Best Budget Inn in January 1997 when Van Treese was found bludgeoned to death in Room 102, hours after his car had been found oddly parked nearby. Distraught, Glossip sold some belongings and went to a lawyer, who told him he saw little reason for Glossip to worry, only to have police arrest him in the parking lot when he left the lawyer’s office.
Police zeroed in on Glossip early and offered Sneed, who was arrested several days later, more favorable terms if he would rat Glossip out, according to several people who have studied the case.
On little more than Sneed’s word, Glossip was convicted and sentenced to death in 1998, Mr. McDugle told The Washington Times. The Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals on a 5-0 vote in 2001 threw out Gossip’s conviction as “extremely weak.”
Glossip was retried, this time with public defenders who also did no investigating and cursory trial work, according to Mr. Knight. That 2004 conviction was upheld by a divided appeals court, which ruled 3-2 against Glossip.
After Sister Prejean persuaded Mr. Knight to take the case, he appeared on an episode of the “Dr. Phil” show to discuss it, and after following up some tips that came from that appearance, Mr. Knight has developed scores of potential witnesses and boxes of statements and other evidence that shows Sneed acted either alone or with a woman a witness heard in Room 102.
“We are also hopeful that, if it is true that Justin Sneed had an accomplice who was in the room when the murder occurred, she may be brought to justice for her role in this crime,” the legislators’ letter said. “If Mr. Glossip is executed before a full review of the new evidence is completed, Oklahoma risks killing an innocent man and allowing one of the real murderers to escape justice. This cannot be acceptable when we can prevent it.”
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater’s office has refused to cooperate and release its records on the case for years, according to Mr. McDugle and others. Mr. Prater, who announced he would not seek re-election in April, did not return a phone call to his office Thursday. He was not in office during Glossip’s two trials.
“I’ve gone to the DA and said, ‘If you have four aces on this, put them on the table,’ and all my requests to the DA have gone ignored,” Mr. McDugle said. “I think there is substantial evidence that shows Glossip wasn’t involved in this and never ‘split the money’ with Sneed, whereas Sneed has a lot to gain from all of this.”
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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