COMMENTARY: 48 Hours for Glossip. When in doubt, kick it out

OKLAHOMA CITY – An execution is set for Wednesday.

A few weeks ago, attorneys trying to save the life of death row inmate Richard E. Glossip filed an appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. 

Three hours before his scheduled execution on Wednesday (September 16), the court extended Glossip’s life by at least two weeks, giving those attorneys some more time to make their case.

The work of Don Knight, Kathleen Lord, Mark Olive and Mark Henricksen – lawyers combing records and case files, contacting new and past witnesses with information not previously known to officials and to the public, and submitting affidavits (affirmations of truth-telling) – should put the justice of Glossip’s date with lethal injection into doubt.

Witnesses say they heard Justin Sneed boast he had dodged execution even though he admits he took a baseball bat and beat Barry Van Treese to death in January 1997. 

Van Treese was owner of an Oklahoma City inn with a cash-only clientele where rooms were often rented by the hour and the drug culture was a daily fact of life. Sneed lived at the inn, performing odd jobs for Van Treese and Glossip, manager of the place, in return for a room.

Over the years, Sneed has offered many different versions of events before and after he killed Van Treese. In his most critical versions of the sordid tale, he claimed Glossip paid him to do it.

Last week, Rogers County officials arrested one of the new witnesses for not paying $200 in remaining fines from a recent case. This and other aggressive moves against witnesses were startling.

The D.A. of Oklahoma County, David Prater, interrogated one new witness. Glossip’s counselors say this amounts to intimidation against a man who says Sneed bragged in prison he’s put a murder off on another guy.

Whether or not Prater’s actions amount to intimidation, they seem unusual, despite a local defense lawyer’s support for the D.A.’s moves.

Another fellow who once upon a time shared a cell with Sneed, says the latter gave “very detailed accounts” of the killing – while never offering “any indication that someone else was involved.” 

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt says none of this new information comes close “to be clear and convincing evidence.”

D.A. Prater has called Glossip, his lawyers, and the new witnesses, liars. He even said we would eventually know that everything they’ve said of late is a lie.

Time will tell.

I have long respected Prater, but I certainly have a different view on this.

I’m not a lawyer, or a judge, or a former juror or a defense laywer.

I am a citizen, and a reporter.

The lawyers in question are serious human beings who have set the table with serious issues.

The new witnesses aver things that past jurors, judges and lawyers could never have known.

Experts have told the court, through the lawyers’ briefs, of all the reasons to doubt the word of a man like Sneed (a known liar and once-habitual meth user hoping to avoid death).

The possibilities that all or any of these individuals speak the truth now should lead the justice system to say, “Wait a minute, or a month, or two months, or forever, while we sort this out.”

Meanwhile, an execution is scheduled for Wednesday.

Over the years, Sneed has at least occasionally continued to talk about killing Van Treese.

There are many reasons to oppose Glossip’s execution, including the recent information.

If the new witnesses in this case are to be believed – and, it seems clear a judicial process is the best way to determine if they are now speaking accurately after maintaining silence for many years – then Glossip is innocent and must not be executed.

Despite the D.A.’s dramatic words, the only person linking Glossip to the crime must be viewed as an even more ferocious liar than understood previously. In a situation where original evidence has gone missing, isn’t it possible that Sneed’s lies fooled the system, the jurors, the judges and justice itself?

The contention is made that the two new witnesses are criminals and are known to have lied in the past. That is true.

The question is, how to proceed when you are dealing with several liars?

It seems the only way to discern the truth, when information comes out not previously known, is to take yet another look at the case. Take the time to be sure, yet again.

While the personal histories of new witnesses are relevant, the record of Justin Sneed, admitted killer of Barry Van Treese, is more so. So is the personal history of Glossip, who has always maintained his innocence in the killing.

Richard fibbed to police for some hours after he became aware that Justin had murdered Barry, before acknowledging he knew after the event that Justin had killed Barry. Richard contends, and has done so consistently, that he did not know of the killing in advance.

So, he can fairly be deemed an accessory after the fact – and 18 years sounds like enough punishment for that crime.

Justin’s varied stories about the events of a winter morning, more than eighteen years ago are, in the end, impossible to reconcile.

Executing a possibly innocent man would be devastating to Oklahoma.

If in doubt, kick it out.

This is no game, but that is a soccer analogy.

In a decade of coaching soccer, I told young players that if they were poorly positioned against the other team on our defensive end of the field – with no one to pass to and the opponents closing in – to kick the ball out. I promised never to chide them in such a circumstance, saying, “When in doubt, kick it out.”

As a layman, the analogy is probably the best one I can make, to perhaps, persuade some more people – hopefully the right people – that our state should avoid this devastation.

Prosecutors and the state of Oklahoma say execution is a just end for Richard Glossip.

If that’s what the rule book really does require, then maybe it’s time to rewrite the rule book.

Those who take a different view of this matter, including those in authority, are not awful people, but I fear they are about to do an awful thing.

With love and respect, I offer this perhaps-final brief.

It is early Monday as I write. 

In 48 hours, unless a court says otherwise, Richard Glossip will be prepared for execution. 

Then, at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, September 30, he will be killed.

Those with no doubts he is guilty – a shrinking number – may think that is fine.

Those who have for years or months believed the case is laced with a web of doubt, believe his execution this week or any week would be a re-defining moment in the contemporary debate over capital punishment in Oklahoma, America and the world.

There’s plenty of doubt. So, your honors, kick it out.