Richard Glossip is on death row in Oklahoma and is slated to be executed in six weeks. Recently, a handwritten note has surfaced that calls into question the testimony of a confessed killer who provided the only evidence in the trial.
Motel repairman Justin Sneed, writing in 2007 and claiming to have killed Best Budget motel owner Barry Van Treese a decade earlier, penned the letter. In the absence of any corroborating or forensic evidence, the state’s case hinged on Sneed’s allegation that the motel manager, Glossip, had framed him for the murder in exchange for $10,000.
And so, in 2004, after a second capital trial, Glossip was given the death penalty. In contrast, killer Sneed was sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of release. Sneed, writing three years later to his own defense attorney, expresses serious anxiety about the case and his part in it. “There are a lot of things bothering me at the moment,” he says.
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Something he needs to “tidy up,” he says. It was a mistake to revisit that, he continues, “I think you know where I’m headed.” Reed Smith, an international business retained by the Oklahoma legislature to conduct an independent investigation into the Glossip case, discovered the letter just recently.
In recent days, fears that the state could execute an innocent person have reached a fever pitch, prompting 61 lawmakers, most of whom are Republican death penalty attorneys, to petition the attorney general for a special hearing to review the new information. The Oklahoma Correctional Authority released this photo of Richard Glossip in 2021. Image courtesy of AP
The legal firm’s 343-page report was published in June, and it detailed how prosecutors had systematically discarded crucial evidence before the trial, a move that constitutes a flagrant disregard for fundamental principles of fair trial procedure. A “reasonable juror, hearing the complete record,” found that Richard Glossip should not have been found guilty of first-degree murder.
Reed Smith released an addendum to their investigation on Sneed on Thursday, and in it, they found a previously unknown letter from him that raises even more doubts. Specifically, what is it that he feels the need to “clean up” because it “eats” him? To begin, I don’t understand what he meant by saying “that was a mistake.”
However, Sneed’s attorney from the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office, Gina Walker, to whom he addressed the letter, did not inquire about any of the matters raised in the letter. Instead, with his death in 2020, Walker effectively put an end to the debate. “I can see by the tone of your letter that a few things are bothering you,” she wrote back to Sneed in August of 2007. “I understand how challenging it was for you to give testimony at the second trial.”
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She went on to claim that if Sneed had declined to testify, “you would most likely be on death row right now” — an allegation that the defense attorneys for Glossip had made. She also said, “I hope [Glosip] didn’t say that or that his lawyers didn’t try to make you feel like you were responsible for how his case turned out.”
Oklahoma Republican State Representative Kevin McDugle, who has been at the forefront of the movement to halt the imminent execution, has said that the letter provides compelling new evidence. He concluded that it was “very suggestive” that “Sneed wanted to recant his testimony, in which Richard Glossip was engaged, and his counsel closed him.”