We speak with investigative reporter Liliana Segura about the remarkable case of Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip, whose execution is set for May 18. Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board on Wednesday denied Glossip clemency even though Oklahoma’s own Republican attorney general has sought to vacate Glossip’s conviction. Glossip has always maintained his innocence. The case dates back to 1997, when Glossip was working as a motel manager in Oklahoma City and his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A maintenance worker, Justin Sneed, admitted to beating Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, but claimed Glossip offered him money for the killing. The case rested almost entirely on Sneed’s claims, and no physical evidence tied Glossip to the crime. Sneed, in exchange for his testimony, did not get the death penalty. “From the beginning, the evidence in this case was weak,” says Segura, a senior reporter for The Intercept who has been following the case since 2015.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Oklahoma, where the state’s Pardon and Parole Board has denied clemency for death row prisoner Richard Glossip, even though Oklahoma’s own attorney general has sought to vacate Glossip’s conviction. On Wednesday, Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond took the unusual step of joining Glossip’s defense team in arguing for clemency, but the Pardon and Parole Board voted 2 to 2 to deny clemency despite widespread doubt over Glossip’s guilt. An execution date has now been set for May 18th.
This is part of what Oklahoma’s attorney general told the parole board.
ATTORNEY GENERAL GENTNER DRUMMOND: I want to acknowledge how unusual it is for the state to support a clemency application of a death row inmate. I’m not aware of any time in our history that an attorney general has appeared before this board and argued for clemency. I’m also not aware of any time in the history of Oklahoma when justice would require it.
Ultimately, that is why we are here, everyone in this room. We are here to see that justice is done. We may have different opinions on what justice looks like in this case, and I fully respect those differences. But in the end, that’s what we must have.
For me, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, I must be primarily considering what justice is for the state of Oklahoma. And that is what has compelled me to devote hours, countless hours, of my time examining the facts in this case. And it is that sense of justice that has compelled me to release materials to the defense team that have been long withheld. I was concerned enough by the research that I had observed that I should retain an independent counsel to conduct a comprehensive review.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Oklahoma’s Attorney General Gentner Drummond urging the Oklahoma parole board to grant clemency to Richard Glossip, who has always maintained his innocence.
His case dates back to 1997, when Glossip was working as a manager at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City, when his boss, Barry Van Treese, was murdered. A maintenance worker, Justin Sneed, admitted he beat Van Treese to death with a baseball bat, but claimed Glossip offered him money for the killing. The case rested almost solely on Sneed’s claims. No physical evidence ever tied Glossip to the crime. And Sneed, in exchange for his testimony, did not get the death penalty.
We go now to Oklahoma City, where we’re joined by the award-winning investigative reporter Liliana Segura. She’s a senior reporter for The Intercept. She has closely covered Richard Glossip’s case since 2015.
Liliana, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain how unusual what happened yesterday was, and go more deeply into the Glossip case.
LILIANA SEGURA: Well, thank you so much for having me, Amy. And, you know, your introduction did a really good job laying out some of the basics about this case.
To be perfectly honest, I am still trying to process what happened yesterday, because it was so unusual — not only unusual, but completely unexpected. Three weeks ago, those of us following the case, those of us — those people involved in this case truly did not expect that this clemency hearing would go forward. Gentner Drummond, as he said, had taken the very unusual step of filing a motion before the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals asking the court to vacate Glossip’s conviction and send it back to Oklahoma City for a new trial, that the Oklahoma City DA had made very clear that this was a case that was probably not going to be retried and that — and Richard Glossip was really in a position where he was able to imagine a possible eventual release, life outside of prison walls. And almost as quickly as that happened, you know, things just sort of changed all of a sudden. The court unexpectedly rejected the attorney general’s motion, and then, rather than intervene to stop the clemency hearing from going forward, as Governor Stitt has done before, the clemency hearing did take place.
And on Wednesday, yesterday morning, I attended a packed hearing where Gentner Drummond, along with Rex Duncan, the former prosecutor who undertook an independent investigation into this case, both spoke about why they believe that this execution should not go forward. Rex Duncan said, “This is, you know, a first for me. I’m not usually here to agree with the defense.” And so, when the board members came back at the very end with this 2-to-2 vote, which effectively denies clemency, everyone was shocked. It was a really stunning moment. And I think a lot of us are still waking up this morning trying to grasp what really happened.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Liliana, could you talk about some of the details that have emerged through the years of destroyed evidence by the state, misstatements by key witnesses, what the basis of even the recommendation by the attorney general to — for clemency? Could you talk about the specifics?
LILIANA SEGURA: Absolutely. And let me just say, because there’s no way to cover it all, this is really a case that’s taken a tremendous number of twists and turns. If your viewers and listeners want to go deep into this case, I would urge them to look at the coverage that my colleague Jordan Smith and I have produced going back to 2015. It’s all in one place at The Intercept. I would also urge them to watch the 2017 four-part documentary by Joe Berlinger called Killing Richard Glossip, that also goes into these questions. And, in fact, it’s part of the reason, a large part the reason, that documentary series, that a number of very prominent right-wing lawmakers here in Oklahoma have taken on this case as a campaign for them.
But to answer your question more directly, you know, from the beginning, this case — the evidence in this case was weak. As you highlighted, this story of Richard Glossip being the mastermind behind this murder came solely from Justin Sneed. There were two trials. The first trial in — the first conviction in 1998 was actually overturned in 2001 on the grounds that Glossip received ineffective assistance of counsel. One of the critical mistakes that Glossip’s attorneys made was their failure to show the jury a really astonishing videotape which showed how two Oklahoma City police detectives had interrogated Justin Sneed and, in fact, named Glossip something like six times before Justin Sneed ever claimed that Glossip had put him up to this. The detectives were telling Sneed, you know, “We know there’s more to this. He’s setting you up.” They named Richard Glossip. And Sneed, eventually, you see in this tape, goes along and helps create this narrative that has defined this case ever since. And so, that was all known. That’s been known for years and years.
Richard Glossip came very close in 2015 to being executed. And at that time, witnesses had come forward to say, “Wait a minute, Justin Sneed was portrayed as this hapless, clueless kind of follower who did anything that Richard Glossip would say. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.” You know, people that knew him and had met him in jail said that Sneed admitted, boasted even, that he had gotten away with something that Glossip was facing the death penalty for. So, there’s a lot that has been known.
But in terms of the newest revelations, this has come out largely over the course of the past year. In some years back, these right-wing lawmakers — or, a bipartisan group, but largely spearheaded by conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma — were urging for the governor, for the parole board to take a closer look at Glossip’s case. And when those efforts failed, they sought a law firm that would undertake an independent investigation. And this was done by a law firm named Reed Smith, took on the case pro bono, devoted countless hours, interviewed some 40 witnesses, dozens of people who were never interviewed by the police, looked at all of the records and, indeed, received stuff that had never been turned over before.
And some of the more — some of the most explosive revelations in the Reed Smith report, which came out last year, was that, for example, Justin Sneed had actually sought to recant his testimony between the first and the second trial. There are letters to his attorney asking, you know, how he can undo this deal that he made, you know, sort of expressing a sense of regret almost. And this was also sort of known. You know, back years back, Justin Sneed’s own daughter had come forward saying that her father was regretting the fact that he had sent — helped send Richard Glossip to death row. So, these letters from Sneed, that’s one significant piece of evidence.
There’s also a lot of evidence that, it turns out, was destroyed between the first and the second trial. This included financial records that were critical, because these records would have undercut the state’s theory of this crime, which was that Glossip wanted to get rid of Barry Van Treese so that he could take over the motel, which was really — these financial records, those that were not destroyed, the ones that we have since seen, really go a long way in debunking that theory. So, this evidence that was destroyed, one of the prosecutors at the second trial who assisted the lead prosecutor has since said over and over again that this is horrifying to them — to him, that this should never have happened. This shouldn’t happen in death penalty cases.
AMY GOODMAN: Liliana, we want to turn to Richard Glossip in his own words, speaking remotely at his clemency hearing on Wednesday.
RICHARD GLOSSIP: First, I want the Van Treese family to know how terrible I feel for what they have gone through. What your family has gone through, no family should ever have to endure. I must say again through this hearing that I did not know about Justin Sneed’s plan to commit any crime against Barry Van Treese, and I would have never thought of paying anybody to commit a crime. I absolutely did not cause Justin Sneed to commit any crime against Mr. Van Treese, let alone to murder him. I know that in the chaos of Mr. Van Treese’s death, I made mistakes in how I responded. I am deeply sorry that in my fear and confusion I caused anyone any further harm. Today I want to thank many people who have taken the time to look at this case closely and to take a stand about it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Richard Glossip speaking at his clemency hearing. As we begin to wrap up, Liliana, can you tell us what this Pardon and Parole Board is? The 2-to-2 vote — how does a divided vote lead to his death? And what about the governor’s stance, Governor Stitt?
LILIANA SEGURA: Yes, to be honest, that’s a question that all of us are asking ourselves and trying to understand. One of the next steps that Glossip’s lawyer, Don Knight, is taking is to challenge that very setup. It’s critical to understand that this is a five-member board. One of the board members, Richard Smothermon, recused himself because his wife, Connie Smothermon, prosecuted Glossip and sent him to death row. So, that recusal was absolutely appropriate. What makes absolutely no sense is that the resulting vote still requires — this is four people voting — it still requires three votes in favor of clemency. And so, a 2-to-2 tie, as it turns out, is weighted in favor of the nos. And so, that needs — that is being challenged.
As far as the board’s makeup, you know, this is a five-member board. Three of the board members are appointed by Stitt. Two of the others are appointed by two different courts, including the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, that has repeatedly refused to consider the evidence of Glossip’s innocence. So, all of these boards are political. But, again, we were not expecting this outcome at all. This is a severe blow, and it was a really astonishing moment, after this three-hour hearing, to hear it result in that way.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Liliana, I wanted to ask you, what was the — the victim’s family also spoke at the board meeting. Could you talk about what they said, as well?
LILIANA SEGURA: Absolutely. So, you know, like I mentioned, Richard Glossip had faced execution about — this is his ninth execution date, but he had come extremely close in 2015. Prior to that, there was a clemency hearing in 2014 where the widow of Barry Van Treese, Donna Van Treese, spoke about the impact of her husband’s murder. You know, they had several young children. She said what victims’ family members often said, that this was, you know, a loss that was indescribable, that severely impacted her family and continues to. So, she repeated a lot of what she shared, as did other family members.
But they also described a deep sense of betrayal at this idea that the state, rather than arguing as it basically always does in favor of this execution, that the top law enforcement officer in the state was actually saying that he didn’t want to see this execution proceed. And that was, you know, in some ways understandable. But as your clip that you played early on demonstrates, the job of the attorney general isn’t to satisfy the wishes and emotions of the victim’s family; it’s to do justice for the people of Oklahoma. And that includes Richard Glossip and his loved ones.
And so, that was a really difficult thing to listen to, because — well, in that moment, you know, we all empathize with the pain of the victim’s family, but I personally was feeling like we were going to hear a vote in favor of clemency. And so, again, it’s just — it’s really disorienting to find ourselves here.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Liliana, the state of Oklahoma is going to — is pushing through, what, something like two dozen executions in the next two years, this one being one of them?
LILIANA SEGURA: Well, in fact, yeah, that had been the plan under Gentner Drummond’s predecessor. Very tellingly, Gentner Drummond, who came into office in January, one of his first moves was not only to launch this independent probe into Richard Glossip’s case, but also to slow down this frenzied execution schedule. And so, there are still a lot of people in line to be executed after Richard Glossip over the next couple of years, but he explicitly said, after attending the first execution of the year in January, that this schedule was untenable, that it was taking a toll on the employees of the Department of Corrections, who are tasked with carrying out these executions, and that he wanted to slow down those executions. So, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals grudgingly allowed this change in the schedule, but, yes, Oklahoma continues to execute people. And there are — I should also say that there are a lot of problems with the cases that will follow Richard Glossip’s execution date.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds. Does Richard Glossip’s case go to the Supreme Court?
LILIANA SEGURA: Yes, that, absolutely, it will be before the court to review.
AMY GOODMAN: Liliana Segura, senior reporter for The Intercept, has covered Richard Glossip’s case since 2015. You can go to _Intercept_’s website to see all of the coverage. She was speaking to us from Oklahoma City.
Coming up, 200 years ago, the U.S. declared all of Latin America within its sphere of influence. We’ll look at a growing push for the U.S. to finally revoke the Monroe Doctrine, which has been repeatedly used to justify scores of invasions, interventions, CIA regime changes in the Americas. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Oh Freedom,” Harry Belafonte. He died at his home Tuesday in New York at the age of 96. To see our full show on Harry Belafonte in his own words, go to democracynow.org.
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