Uncovered evidence in Oklahoma death row case prompts calls for new hearing

·5 min read

Attorneys for an Oklahoma death row inmate whose halted execution in 2015 led to a state moratorium on the death penalty requested a new hearing Thursday, alleging that prosecutors had failed to disclose key evidence that could have resulted in a different outcome at his trial or in his petition for a new one.

A report initiated at the request of Oklahoma state legislators in the capital murder case against Richard Glossip contends that the state's primary witness, Justin Sneed, confirmed to investigators in interviews this summer that he has had discussions with multiple family members about "recanting" his testimony.

In addition, the report said, investigators found that the district attorney's case file included documentation describing how the state provided Sneed information "so he could conform his testimony to match the evidence" from other witnesses.

Richard Glossip on Feb. 19, 2021. (Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections via AP file)
Richard Glossip on Feb. 19, 2021. (Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections via AP file)

Glossip, a motel manager in Oklahoma City, was convicted in the 1997 killing of his boss, Barry Van Treese. Sneed, a motel handyman, admitted at trial that he killed Van Treese, but said that it was at Glossip's direction and that he had been promised $10,000. In exchange for testifying against Glossip, Sneed received a life sentence while Glossip was given the death penalty.

Prosecutors alleged Glossip orchestrated the plot because he was embezzling from the motel and feared being fired. Glossip, now 59, has long maintained his innocence.

"This newly obtained evidence establishes not only a pattern of Sneed discussing 'recanting' to individuals he trusts at various times spanning a period of over a decade, but also conduct by the State before and during Glossip's retrial that reveal its concerns over Sneed's reliability and credibility," according to the report, which was prepared by the Pittsburgh-based law firm Reed Smith LLP. The firm released an initial report in June.

As a result of the latest report, Glossip's lawyers said Thursday they filed a so-called Brady motion, intended to compel prosecutors to turn over any evidence they may have that could help the defense. Failure to do so could result in a conviction being reversed.

Lawyers are seeking the new evidentiary hearing from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, claiming that prosecutors in the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office also destroyed evidence.

"Rich Glossip is a nobody. He's not some powerful person. He's just like all the rest of us," Don Knight, an attorney for Glossip, said at a news conference. "This is what the government can do when they're allowed to run amok."

Most recently, in a high-profile case against Adnan Syed, whose arrest and conviction in the 1999 murder of a former high school girlfriend was chronicled in the hit podcast "Serial," prosecutors in Baltimore cited Brady violations made by prosecutors at his trial among the reasons he deserved to be freed. A judge on Monday found the evidence compelling enough to vacate Syed's murder conviction.

Glossip was set to be executed Thursday, but in August was granted a 60-day reprieve by Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, while an appeals court reviews his case based on the report's initial findings. A clemency hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9.

A review of the case against Glossip has received bipartisan support in Oklahoma.

In August, more than five dozen Democratic and Republican state lawmakers signed a letter urging state Attorney General John O'Connor, a Republican, to agree to an evidentiary hearing.

O'Connor responded that it is up to the courts, but reiterated that "multiple courts have reviewed this evidence and determined that the jury that convicted Glossip and sentenced him to death did so in full accordance with the law." Glossip's original conviction was overturned on appeal, but a second jury found him guilty in 2004.

O'Connor said in a statement Thursday that he believes Sneed used the word "recant" in reference to "his hope to negotiate a shorter prison term in exchange for his testimony at Glossip’s second trial — but that never happened."

Reed Smith investigators have released other information discovered in the case in recent months, including a letter written by Sneed in 2007 to his lawyer in which he says he has "somethings I need to clean up" and "it was a mistake reliving this."

O'Connor said he remains unconvinced, and that the only information in the case that Glossip's defense team could not review were "work product materials" protected by law.

"It is disappointing that Glossip's supporters are criticizing law enforcement, prosecutors, juries, and judges in an attempt to distract the public from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of Glossip's guilt," O'Connor said.

Glossip has escaped the death chamber multiple times as he appealed his case, including in September 2015, when then-Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, stayed his execution at the last minute after prison officials tried to go forward with the wrong lethal injection drugs.

The stunning admission was among a wave of botched and bungled executions in Oklahoma in 2014 and 2015, prompting a statewide moratorium on capital punishment that lasted until October 2021.

In June, O'Connor asked the state's highest appeals court to set execution dates for 25 death row inmates, including Glossip. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 20.

Glossip's case won support from notable names such as actress Susan Sarandon, Pope Francis and Barry Switzer, the popular former football coach at the University of Oklahoma.

State Rep. Kevin McDugle, a Republican, has said that he is so disturbed by the circumstances surrounding Glossip's case that executing him would change his mind on capital punishment.

"If we put Richard Glossip to death, I will fight in this state to abolish the death penalty, simply because the process is not pure," McDugle told reporters in June.

Van Treese's family could not be reached for comment Thursday. His widow, Donna Van Treese, previously told NBC affiliate KFOR in Oklahoma City that she was ready to see Glossip put to death.

"Would I wish a cruel death on anyone? No," she said. "I'm hoping that it is quick."

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com