Monday, July 06, 2015

Richard Glossip

Mark Graber

The Supreme Court’s decision in Glossip v. Gross (2015) cleared the way for Oklahoma to execute a person who may be innocent of murder and for whom Oklahoma admits merits a lesser sentence.  The precise issue in Glossip was whether the manner in which Oklahoma executes persons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.  One unfortunate consequence was that no justice mentioned the disturbing facts of Glossip’s case, not even Justice Breyer, who wrote a powerful dissent urging the justices to rethink the constitutionality of capital punishment. In fact, Richard Glossip is Exhibit A for problems of reliability and fairness with the process that sentences people to death, particularly when prosecutors rely heavily on plea-bargaining with one defendant in order to convict a defendant who refused to admit guilt.

On January 6, 1997, Barry Van Treese, the owner of the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City was brutally beaten to death with a baseball bat.  Justin Sneed, a handyman at the inn, confessed to the murder.  In return for a life sentence, he agreed to testify that Glossip, then managing the Best Budget Inn, had agreed to pay him $10,000 to murder Van Treese.  At trial, Glossip admitted that, scared, he had helped cover up the murder after the fact, but denied either encouraging or soliciting Sneed to commit murder.  He was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to death.  That verdict was reversed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court on the ground that counsel was ineffective.  More than seven years after the murder was committed, a second jury found Glossip guilty and sentenced him to death.  The Oklahoma Supreme Court sustained this death sentence, with two justices dissenting on the ground that prosecutorial behavior had unduly biased the jury.  Throughout this period, Glossip was informed, possibly repeatedly, that he would not be executed and be eligible for parole in twenty years if he confessed to the murder.

What is wrong with this picture?

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though the evidence that he solicited the murder of Barry Van Treese, interpreted with a great deal of charity, barely gets over the reasonable doubt hurdle, if that.  Consider how the Supreme Court of Oklahoma characterized the evidence when finding Glossip’s first trial counsel incompetent.

The State concedes that the only “direct evidence” connecting Appellant to the murder was Sneed’s trial testimony.  No forensic evidence links Appellant to murder and no compelling evidence corroborated Sneed’s testimony that Appellant was the mastermind behind the murder.

The evidence at trial tending to corroborate Sneed’s testimony was extremely weak.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed, even though the Oklahoma Supreme Court implied if not stated outright that, given the inconsistencies in the trial record and police reports in his first trial, and decent counsel would have beaten the murder charge, if not the entire conviction. 

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though the witnesses at his second trial were trying to recall events that happened more than seven years ago and at least two justices not known for their liberalism think prosecutorial misconduct biased the jury.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though Justin Sneed, who provided the only evidence that directly ties Glossip to the murder of Barry Van Treese, was induced to testify by the promise that he would not be executed.  Not exactly the most reliable testimony. 

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed because no physical evidence can exonerate him.  There is no physical evidence in this case.  The central issue is whether Justin Sneed lied or exaggerated in order to save his skin.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though Oklahoma has decided not to execute the person who actually committed the murder, Justin Sneed.  This seems particularly arbitrary given that one of the aggravating factors in the case was the brutality of the murder and Sneed was the person who actually committed the murder.

Richard Glossip is likely to be executed even though for almost a decade, Oklahoma was prepared to promise Glossip that he would not be executed if he confessed to the crime.  Glossip is being executed because he exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial.

In sum, Richard Glossip is likely to be executed because capital punishment enhances prosecutorial power to secure unreliable and arbitrary death sentences.  Oklahoma police quickly came to the conclusion that Sneed certainly murdered Van Treese and that Glossip may have solicited the murder.  That clear physical evidence demonstrated that Sneed was the perpetrator perversely enhanced Sneed’s plea bargaining leverage.  Oklahoma needed Sneed to testify against Glossip.  They had no case otherwise.  They did not need Glossip to testify against Sneed.  The result is that the person who committed a murder beyond all reasonable doubt will not be executed, while the person who may or may not have solicited that murder is out of appeals.

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