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Richard Glossip v. the Death Machine

Glossip has been on death row for 25 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Now, he’s not only trying to save himself, but all Oklahoma Death Row inmates from what they deem inhumane executions

Photo illustration based on photograph by Janelle Stecklein/Community Newspaper Holdings Inc./AP

When you’re executed in Oklahoma, the process begins 35 days before your death, according to inmate Richard Glossip. First, they take your belongings, then they transfer you to a block of four cells called Death Watch. If you’re the only one on the block, they put you in the first cell, where you’ll stay for a week. Then they’ll move you one cell over, and so on until you’re closest to the execution chamber. There’s a camera and a guard for each cell, bright lights are on day and night, and the only thing you’re allowed to bring is a Bible, family photos, and a pen and paper. Some days, there’s nothing; others, you’ll watch as another inmate goes off to die.

Glossip has found himself on Death Watch three times over the last 25 years. He’s had three last meals, the same four items every time: fish and chips, a Wendy’s Baconator, a strawberry shake, and pizza — Pizza Hut once, Dominos twice. He’s listened as two men have been put to death, botched lethal injections both. And, as soon as early next year, he could be there again, in that endless daylight cell, waiting for death — if his lawyer can’t secure him another hearing, the last Hail Mary.

On the surface, Glossip isn’t all that remarkable. He could be your neighbor standing at his barbecue, talking your ear off about how he grew up on country music and Hee Haw. He got a taste for rock & roll when his brother bought him his first record (Three Dog Night) and a few years ago, he got to meet Sam Harris, the lead singer of his favorite band, X Ambassadors. He has his favorite phrases, like, “It’s always bugged me that Lady Justice has got a blindfold on… if you’re blindfolded, you don’t see anything.” He’s a smooth talker who has won the support of everyone from Susan Sarandon to Pope Francis. As Sarandon told Rolling Stone: “What happened to Richard Glossip is a perfect example of the failures of our justice system.”

That self-assured personality that garnered him so many supporters has also earned Glossip his share of enemies; for example, he pissed off the detective who first interrogated him, Bob Bemo, to no end. “He’s very arrogant and very cocky,” Bemo said in Joe Berlinger’s 2017 docuseries Killing Richard Glossip, which lays out Glossip’s case up until his last execution date in 2015. “He was one of those guys that really irritates you, you know, with his comebacks and with what he was saying, and that’s why I would get in his face sometimes with, ‘I’ll tell you what, buddy.’ ”

Glossip is also a death row inmate whose possible innocence has long been a subject of debate. The cops and the state say he orchestrated the 1997 murder-for-hire of his boss, hotel owner Barry Van Treese. Glossip says he’s never broken the law a day in his life; people search service Spokeo seems to affirm as much, aside from his first-degree murder conviction. Glossip last found himself on death row six years ago, when the state nearly put him to death using potassium acetate — a chemical used to de-ice airplane wings — instead of potassium chloride. That blunder, along with the pair of mishandled executions, caused Oklahoma to shut down the death machine to ostensibly give it a tune-up. Now, unless a cadre of inmates and their lawyer can convince it otherwise, Oklahoma is primed to hit the gas, their execution procedure largely unchanged. And Glossip, he knows, would likely be the first back on Death Watch — unless he and his lawyer, Don Knight, can convince the state to give him another hearing.

Glossip is feeling better about his chances than back in 2015, though. Knight has rounded up a group of 34 Oklahoma lawmakers, including 28 death penalty-supporting Republicans, to sign a letter asking Governor Kevin Stitt to order an independent investigation into Glossip’s case — plus a host of witnesses he says can attest to Glossip’s innocence. “Too often when you’re in the political arena, people just kind of ignore those types of things because they think it’s political suicide,” Glossip tells Rolling Stone over the phone from Oklahoma State Penitentiary. “And that’s why I have so much respect for these Republicans here in Oklahoma. … They’re standing up because, like I told them, this isn’t a left or right thing, this is an innocent thing. And you should never try to make that political in any way. Everybody should come together because nobody should want to kill innocent people.”

Glossip’s troubles started on January 7th, 1997, when then-18-year-old Justin Sneed beat Barry Van Treese to death with a baseball bat in room 102 of the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Van Treese owned the hotel, Glossip was the manager, and Sneed was the maintenance man. The story was pretty straightforward, at least according to what the state concluded in Glossip’s 2014 clemency packet: Two years after Van Treese hired Glossip — who lived in the Best Budget Inn with his girlfriend — he started noticing that the books seemed to be off. He suspected Glossip, who was in charge of payroll, of skimming roughly $6,000, and planned to confront and possibly fire him. Sneed, who had become a pal and kind of kid brother to Glossip, says the older man woke him up early on January 7th and told him to kill Van Treese, promising him $10,000 for the job — plus a gig managing of one of the hotels the boss owned.

According to the state, Sneed killed Van Treese — breaking a window in the process — changed out of his bloody clothes, and went to tell Glossip the job was done. Glossip told him to get the money, which was under the front seat of Van Treese’s car, and move the vehicle to the credit union across the way. They split the money — only $4,000, as it turned out — and concocted a story about two drunks fighting in room 102 to keep housekeeping out of the way while they fixed the window. They meant to get rid of the body, but the cops got involved when the credit union called the hotel to report Van Treese’s abandoned car.

The police homed in on Glossip immediately, mostly because his story about when he last saw his boss kept changing. Glossip maintained his innocence, however, during two police interviews, telling them that Sneed had come to his apartment early that morning and confessed to killing Van Treese, which he thought was a joke. Apparently, the kid had a weird sense of humor. Meanwhile, Sneed was arrested on January 14th and confessed to the murder — naming Glossip as the mastermind. Glossip was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1998 and sentenced to death, while Sneed got life without parole.

According to Knight and Glossip’s many supporters, there are some things about the state’s story that don’t add up, which gives them pause when it comes to his sentence. “I’m pro-death penalty for people who are guilty,” says Oklahoma State Rep. Kevin McDugle, one of the 34 legislators who signed that letter in support of Glossip. “But all I want to do is make sure that in Oklahoma, that we have a mechanism to make sure that the people who are put to death are guilty.”

Knight has been working with Glossip since 2014 — at the behest of Sister Helen Prejean, author of the 1993 book Dead Man Walking and a leading advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Glossip initially reached out to Prejean to ask if she’d been in the room with him when he was executed. “I promised him, yes, I’d be there if he was executed,” Prejean tells Rolling Stone. “Then I get in my bed that night and two o’clock I bolt awake. I can’t just let him be executed. I know innocent people can be killed.”

Glossip was initially scheduled to die in January of 2015, but his death was delayed due to a U.S. Supreme Court Case he helmed called Glossip v. Gross; he and 19 other inmates banded together to petition for a writ of certiorari and stays of their executions after the botched 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, who regained consciousness during the lethal injection procedure and died horribly.

Kathleen Lord, center, and Don Knight, right, two of Richard Glossip's defense attorneys, look on as Sister Helen Prejean, left, addresses the media outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester Okla., Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, after a stay was issued for Glossip. Glossip was twice convicted of ordering the killing of Barry Van Treese, who owned the Oklahoma City motel where he worked. His co-worker, Justin Sneed, was convicted of fatally beating Van Treese and was a key prosecution witness in Glossip's trials. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Sister Helen Prejean, Kathleen Lord, and Don Knight outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester Oklahoma. (Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The inmates’ suit claimed that the use of midazolam — the anesthetic that apparently failed in Lockett’s execution — was cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court ruled against Glossip et al in June 2015, at which point he was scheduled, once more, to die that September. The next stay came in — from Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals — three hours before he was to be executed, this time to examine an innocence petition drawn up by Knight asking for another hearing. The judges ultimately decided Knight didn’t have enough evidence for a hearing, and moved Glossip’s death date to September 30th, when the state determined they had the wrong drug and executions shut down for the next six years.

When Knight first took on Glossip’s case, he was struck by a few things: One, that Glossip would kill Van Treese for money when he had access, as manager, to far more than $4,000 at any given time. And, two, that Glossip was put away solely on the word of Sneed, who was given life in prison instead of death for implicating Glossip. (Rolling Stone wrote to Sneed in prison but did not receive a response.) Knight was also shocked by how Glossip’s first trial went down. For one, his first lawyer, Wayne Fournerat, had no experience trying capital cases and did little to no investigation into his client’s innocence, and even pressed Glossip to accept a plea. “You don’t just show up in court like happens in TV shows. You have to prepare for it. You have to hire an investigator,” Knight says. “You have to dive into every piece of evidence that there is you have to litigate the crap out of a case.”

Fournerat himself has admitted to being unprepared; he has since been disbarred and no longer practices law. “I have been criticized a great deal for representing Richard Glossip. I sucked at it, you know. I was terrible at it,” he said in Killing Richard Glossip.

Things were no better for Glossip when he was granted another trial in 2001 after the Oklahoma Court of Appeals threw out the 1998 conviction. Public defender G. Lynn Burch was initially assigned the case; his work on the first appeal helped convince the appellate court to overturn Glossip’s conviction, so he was more than ready to represent the man on the second go-around, according to Killing Richard Glossip. Burch did not reply to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.

First off, Burch intended to air Sneed’s confession tape during the trial — which many supporters believe depicts authorities leading the teen to implicate Glossip — a piece of evidence that never made it to the first. (Bemo, the investigating officer who appeared in Berlinger’s documentary, did not return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.) Burch never got to represent Glossip, though, as Sneed accused the lawyer of threatening him in prison — which Burch vehemently denies. After Sneed’s lawyer, Gina Walker, was added to the witness list so that she could testify to the threat — which was not recorded — Burch recused himself from the case. Walker died in 2020 and could not be questioned for this story. Burch believes that the false accusation was a ploy to get him off the case.

Instead, Glossip was represented by Silas Lyman and Wayne Woodyard, who, Knight says, were no more prepared than Fournerat. They, too, did not manage to introduce the confession tape into evidence. “The only defense we can tell from the second trial is that they wanted to cross-examine Sneed, sort of like they thought there was going to be some kind of Perry Mason moment where, you know, they can break him down on the stand, reduce him to tears and have him confess,” Knight says. “That’s great for a movie, but it doesn’t happen in real life.”

Lyman did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for an interview and phone numbers available for Woodyard online are currently disconnected.

Knight has spent the last six years doing the work he says Glossip’s lawyers should have done in the first place. He hired a forensic accountant who he says can prove Glossip wasn’t stealing money from Van Treese; instead, he says, the hotel’s income just wasn’t matching up to a projected figure. He also spoke with several people who attest to Sneed’s — and only Sneed’s — guilt. Knight shared four affidavits from these witnesses with Rolling Stone, which paint a far different picture of Sneed than the one the state presented in court. Should Glossip be granted another hearing, Knight plans to submit them to a judge.

According to one potential witness’ affidavit, a fellow inmate who knew Sneed when he first got to prison, Sneed’s story changed several times at first — which the unnamed man attributed to Sneed coming down off meth — but he never said that Glossip was involved, only, perhaps, a girlfriend. “Sneed had a different kind of character,” the man wrote in his statement, adding that Sneed said Van Treese shouldn’t have fought back. “His thought process was not like maybe yours or mine. He really thought it was OK that the guy had been killing. [It] was not a big deal to him.”

Barry Van treese

Barry Van Treese (Photo: Court Documents)

Another man who was in prison with Sneed adds in his affidavit that Sneed told him that his girlfriend was seeing Van Treese, who was her “sugar daddy”; that the girlfriend told him that the boss was set to have a large amount of money on him that day — $20,000 to $30,000. The woman was supposed to lure Van Treese to room 102, where Sneed would rob the hotel owner and make off with the money. After killing his boss, Sneed was disappointed when he only found $4,000. “Sneed sometimes commented that he couldn’t believe he killed a man for so little money,” the witness wrote, adding that Sneed’s biggest concerns at the time were that he did not get the death penalty and that his girlfriend stay out of prison.

Another affidavit, this one from a dancer who worked at a club next to the hotel, seems to match the claim that a girlfriend was involved rather than Glossip — a woman who went by the name “Fancy” and was dating Sneed as well as Van Treese, who gave her money. According to the dancer, Sneed started heavily using drugs, at which point he became “scary”; he used women from the club to lure men to the hotel so he could rob them, spoke about how he knew where to hide bodies so they would never be found, and came back covered in blood once after announcing to friends that he was going to “get the money and drugs.” The woman recalled that after Van Treese’s murder, Fancy had a customer drive her to a lake where she said she was getting rid of a box for Sneed. After that, Fancy disappeared, telling the other dancer, “I am not going down for this murder.” 

“All these people are real, and the words are their own,” Knight says. “They will be called as witnesses when the time comes — if it ever comes.”

The Van Treese family did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment, but have, in the past called him a “fun-loving father” and an honest businessman. “Over these many years our family has endured all manner of pain as a result of the death of Barry,” his sister Alana Mileto said statement to Tulsa World. “The Van Treese family knows with absolute certainty the State of Oklahoma has provided the opportunity for justice to be served in this case. … We have a right as a family and as citizens of the United States of America to expect justice to be served.”

Knight and his cohorts want the same thing — albeit with a different outcome. Possible witnesses aside, Knight says that Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has ignored requests to turn over evidence collected during the case: notes from the original detectives, a videotape from a nearby gas station, and Glossip’s polygraph test. “We’re not asking for him to be released. We’re simply asking for an investigation,” Knight says.

Prater’s office did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment but said in a recent statement to local Oklahoma news regarding Knight and his cadre of legislators: “The killer has exercised and exhausted every constitutional and statutory right as he has gone through the trial process and both the state and federal appellate process. Every court has reviewed his claims and have denied him any relief.”

Prater’s correct that Glossip has ostensibly exhausted his legal options, having been denied clemency in 2014. “The court system is pretty much shut off to us at this point in time,” Knight says. “We can file another petition, but as we faced in 2015, that idea of finality of judgment and the ability of people to continue to file petitions is extremely limited. The opportunity that we would have would be a clemency hearing.” Knight says he was previously told that Glossip would get another such hearing, but pardon and parole board director Tom Bates refuted that claim.

“People usually only get one clemency hearing because either they get granted clemency or they’re executed,” Knight says. “They haven’t faced a situation where there’s been a six-year lapse between the last clemency hearing and the execution date.” That doesn’t mean it’s impossible; Knight still has hope he’ll have his day in court.

That’s not the only battle Glossip is currently fighting, though — there’s also the matter of the Oklahoma death penalty and what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The state announced new protocols in March 2020, but a group of inmates, including Glossip, stepped forward to challenge Oklahoma, and resurrect Glossip’s old suit. “The Oklahoma Department of Corrections literally made no changes from the protocol that was in place 2014,” Dale Baich, an attorney for those inmates, tells Rolling Stone. “In 2017, a blue-ribbon commission in Oklahoma took a comprehensive look at the death penalty and recommended the number of changes to the method of execution protocol in Oklahoma. The Department of Corrections ignored those changes. … So, it’s business as usual in Oklahoma. And basically, we’re turning the clock back to 2014 or 2015.” Most notably, the controversial drug midazolam is still in the mix.

A representative for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections told Rolling Stone, “It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation.”

Recently, though, it was announced that the inmates will be able to have their say. On August 11th, Federal District Judge Stephen Friot ruled that Glossip and the others’ suit may proceed to trial, setting a scheduling conference for August 31st, with possible trial dates early next year. Inmates had to choose their preferred method of execution before the judge’s ruling, a selection that included three forms of lethal injection — one of which includes midazolam — or firing squad. Glossip chose options one and two, lethal injection minus the controversial drug. “It is terrible to ask someone to choose how they want to be put to death,” Knight says. “Really beyond words.”

Meanwhile, Glossip is trying to stay hopeful, zen — as he has for the last quarter of a century. He has his music, the letters he writes each day to friends, and a newly minted fiancée, who started off as one of his many supporters. “You only hear one side of the story more often than not about death row inmates, so they become these animals,” he says. “But in reality, if you follow the guidelines of the death penalty, the majority of the guys down here shouldn’t even be down here. … Too often people come in here and they just lay on their bunks and say, ‘You know what? I’m done.’ … And I try to encourage people that there’s always hope. Look at me, I survived three executions.”

From Rolling Stone US