Handwritten letter casts doubt on key testimony in Oklahoma death row case

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

A handwritten letter has come to light casting doubt on the critical testimony of a self-confessed murderer who provided the only implicating evidence at the trial of Richard Glossip, a death row inmate in Oklahoma who is to be executed in six weeks’ time.

The letter was written in 2007 by Justin Sneed, a motel handyman who by his own admittance bludgeoned to death Barry Van Treese, the owner of a Best Budget, a decade earlier. Sneed’s testimony that Glossip, the manager of the motel, had put him up to the murder with a promise of $10,000 was central to the state’s case – with no other forensic or corroborating evidence to back it up.

Related: Oklahoma lawmakers urge pause amid fears innocent man to be executed

As a result, Glossip was sentenced to death in his second capital trial in 2004. By contrast Sneed, the killer, was given life without parole.

In the handwritten letter, Sneed writes to his own defense lawyer three years later expressing deep anxiety about the case and his role in it. “There are a lot of things right now that are eating at me,” he begins.

“Somethings I need to clean up,” he goes on. Then he writes: “I think you know were (sic) I’m going it was a mistake reliving this.”

The letter was uncovered recently by Reed Smith, an international law firm that was asked by Oklahoma state lawmakers to carry out an independent investigation into the Glossip case. In recent days, concern that the state might be about to kill an innocent man has reached fever pitch, with 61 legislators – most of them pro-death penalty Republicans – pleading with the state’s attorney general to hold a special hearing to consider the new evidence.

In its 343-page report, released in June, the law firm revealed that prosecutors had intentionally destroyed crucial evidence before trial in a gross violation of due process. The review concluded that “no reasonable juror hearing the complete record would have convicted Richard Glossip of first-degree murder”.

Sneed’s newly uncovered letter, contained in a supplemental report released by Reed Smith on Thursday, raises further disturbing questions. What precisely was “eating at” him, and what did he want to “clean up”? Most importantly, what did he mean by “it was a mistake”?

Yet Gina Walker, Sneed’s lawyer from the Oklahoma county public defender’s office, to whom he wrote the letter, did not raise any of these questions with him. Instead Walker, who died in 2020, effectively closed down the conversation.

“I can tell by the tone of your letter that some things are bothering you,” she wrote back to Sneed in August 2007. “I know that it was very hard for you to testify at the second trial.”

She went on to accuse Glossip’s defense lawyers of trying to talk Sneed out of testifying, saying that went “totally against your best interests to the benefit of their client. Had you refused [to testify], you would most likely be on death row right now.”

She added: “I hope [Glossip] has not or his lawyers have not tried to make you feel responsible for the outcome of his case”.

Kevin McDugle, a Republican representative in the Oklahoma legislature who has led the call for a pause in the approaching execution, said the letter amounted to compelling new evidence. It strongly suggested, he said, that “Sneed wanted to recant his statement implicating Richard Glossip, and his attorney shut him down”.