As the hour of his execution approaches, Richard Glossip is getting his 15 minutes of fame. And then some.
Glossip’s story will be featured on the Dr. Phil show Monday, the latest in a spree of national and international publicity for the Oklahoma death row inmate scheduled to die Sept. 16. The show appears to be an impassioned plea by actress Susan Sarandon for the state to grant Glossip a reprieve while his supporters continue to search for evidence to exonerate him.
I don’t know for sure if Glossip was guilty of the crime. But two juries decided he paid a young maintenance man at the Oklahoma City motel where he worked to kill his boss, Barry Van Treese, in 1997. During a clemency hearing last year, he proclaimed his innocence but was unable to explain why he didn’t report the crime to police.
I know the justice system makes many mistakes, especially when it comes to cases where it ought to be the most careful: those that carry a death sentence.
Since 1973, at least 150 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the United States, including 10 from Oklahoma, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
I also know that the national and international media coverage of Glossip’s case has provided examples of mistakes as well. In their rush to build a compelling narrative of an innocent man about to be executed, some journalists who should know better have been remarkably incurious.
A reporter from an international publication told The Frontier’s Cary Aspinwall this week that he hadn’t bothered to write Glossip’s co-defendant, Justin Sneed, a letter because he assumed Sneed wouldn’t write back.
That sounds like something some reporters might sheepishly tell editors when they are either too lazy or uninterested in the other side of a story to seek out opposing viewpoints. Meanwhile, the same publication has put a considerable amount of effort into telling Glossip’s story in several parts.
Aspinwall appears to be among the few journalists who actually did work to get Sneed’s point of view. She received a letter late last year in which Sneed, serving life for his role in Van Treese’s death, wrote that the crime “wasn’t all about the money he was offering.”
“After all he (Glossip) took half, after he told me to go get it from Van Treese’s car. I made the choice to obey an order out of loyalty to him … And my story in entire truth may crucify him further and the acceptance of choice that I deserve nothing less. I am eternally sorry, I wish not to cause the Van Treese family any more pain,” Sneed wrote.
Another questionable piece of the story involves a letter allegedly written by Sneed’s daughter, O’Ryan Justine Sneed. It arrived just after Sneed’s clemency hearing last year, too late to be of any official good but not too late to be used over and over in news stories without questioning its authenticity.
Are we one of the few news outlets that tried to authenticate this letter? It’s disappointing to think so. Publications that have treated the letter as authentic include the Huffington Post, and The Intercept (which reported that O’Ryan Sneed couldn’t be located.)
When Aspinwall followed up by trying to find Sneed’s daughter, she found the phone number on the letter checked to an escort service.
Aspinwall tried for months to find Justine Sneed just to confirm she wrote the letter. Despite making what appears to be an impassioned (and quite eloquent) plea on behalf of Glossip in the letter, she has all but vanished since then.
In the latest odd tangent, numerous outlets have written stories about a “race against time” to find O’Ryan Sneed.
“Investigators are now desperately trying to trace O’Ryan, who went to ground when her family ordered her not to speak out any further,” states a story in the UK’s Mirror earlier this week. (There’s no explanation of how the reporter knows she was ordered not to speak out or who allegedly did so.)
Then there’s this statement by Sarandon this week in People magazine: “The only thing linking Richard Glossip to the murder is the testimony of the murderer.”
Though the case is heavily dependent on Sneed’s testimony, there was other evidence considered by jurors in not one but two trials.
There was the testimony of a motel clerk, Billye Hooper, who testified at Glossip’s trial that he told several different stories about Van Treese’s whereabouts and how the window in room 102 was broken.
Also, Glossip had no explanation for the $1,200 cash police found in his possession. And it was unclear how Sneed, an unpaid drifter, would know that Van Treese kept large amounts of cash hidden in the trunk of his car.
And there was the behavior of Glossip himself.
Initially, he told police the window in room 102 was broken by drunks in a fight. He said he had seen his boss leaving the hotel that morning to shop for supplies. Or was it the night before?
After police found Van Treese’s body in room 102, Glossip’s story changed. This time, he told police that Justin Sneed had committed the crime and confessed but Glossip said he didn’t want to say anything until he knew for sure.
Glossip also started selling his belongings after he first spoke with police. He later missed a scheduled interview with police, who went looking for him instead, according to court records.
Sarandon also told People that there’s “no physical evidence or motive linking [Glossip] to the crime.”
This seems like the easiest claim in the Glossip narrative to refute. Nearly every story has recounted how Van Treese discovered that receipts for the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City didn’t match with the cash that Glossip, the hotel’s manager, was reporting.
One staff member described Van Treese as “all puffed up” and angry about the discrepency. He allegedly threatened Glossip that he better come up with the missing money and receipts for the Best Budget Inn.
Van Treese had traveled to the Oklahoma City hotel that night to confront Glossip about the alleged missing money and Glossip feared he could end up in jail. Whether you believe that testimony or not, the scenario certainly provides a plausible motive.
I am certainly not questioning the sincerity of Sarandon and the nun she portrayed in the movie Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean. Or of anyone involved in the fight for or against the death penalty.
The world needs more committed people of principle who are willing to fight for unpopular causes. In fact they may want to examine the case of the next inmate up for execution after Glossip, Benjamin Cole.
Clearly, if we believe incompetent people shouldn’t be executed, Cole is a candidate for consideration. But there has been virtually no national and international attention to the very real questions over Cole’s competency.
(Attorneys for the state suggested Friday that he perhaps chooses to crawl on the floor of his cell and bathe in toilet water, and really believes the rapture is at hand.)
And the way our nation carries out the death penalty itself is certainly a worthy target for famous and not-so-famous activists alike.
Glossip, of course, was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court challenge by Oklahoma inmates of the drug midazolam. A divided court ruled that the drug did not violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unsual punishment.
The death penalty is neither effective in reducing crime nor a cost-saving measure. People of color and the poor are disproportionately likely to receive it. We in Oklahoma have seen what happens when drug shortages lead to experimenting with new lethal cocktails.
But as journalists, we owe it to our readers to approach claims of innocence with the same sense of skepticism we would any other story. Even when the clock is ticking.