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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Oklahoma Death Row Inmate’s Appeal

In this undated file photo, James Earle Fraser’s statue “The Authority of Law” sits at the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (OSV News photo/Mark Thomas, Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court Jan. 22 agreed to hear an appeal from Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip, who has long maintained his innocence. Glossip is backed by the state’s attorney general who has said he should not be executed because of errors made that prevented him from getting a fair trial.

“Public confidence in the death penalty requires the highest standard of reliability, so it is appropriate that the U.S. Supreme Court will review this case,” the state’s Republican attorney general, Gentner Drummond, said in a statement. “As Oklahoma’s chief law officer, I will continue fighting to ensure justice is done in this case and every other.”

Glossip’s attorney, John Mills, said his client has maintained his innocence for more than 25 years. “It is time — past time — for his nightmare to be over,” he said in a statement.

Glossip, 60, was convicted of a 1997 murder-for-hire of the owner of the motel where he worked.

Last May, the Supreme Court blocked Glossip’s scheduled execution and since September it has been considering Glossip’s appeal. In its brief order, the court, which will review his case next fall, said it will also consider if Glossip had grounds under Oklahoma law to challenge his conviction.

Three different times, Glossip was just hours away from being executed. In 2015, his execution was stopped just minutes before it was to take place when prison officials realized they had received the wrong lethal drug.

Glossip has gained public attention in recent years with faith leaders, lawmakers, and public figures like Kim Kardashian pleading his case.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph and longtime activist against capital punishment, has served as Glossip’s spiritual adviser and has frequently visited him in prison.

Last year, she and other Catholic death penalty opponents applauded the court’s action in blocking Glossip’s execution.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty, said at the time that Glossip’s case “has captured the nation’s attention because it shines a spotlight on so much of the brokenness in our death penalty system.”

Glossip was convicted of the 1997 murder of his boss, Barry Alan Van Treese, at the Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma City. Recent investigations into his case revealed a faulty police investigation and intentional destruction of evidence. The reports also drew attention to Justin Sneed, the motel handyman, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to beating Van Treese to death with a baseball bat at the hotel.

Sneed originally testified that he killed Van Treese after Glossip, the motel manager, promised to pay him $10,000. The recent investigations said Sneed had asked several times about recanting his testimony.

Glossip’s attorneys claim Sneed killed Van Treese during a botched robbery for drug money and claim he framed Glossip to avoid getting the death penalty.

After two different investigations questioned the validity of Glossip’s death sentence, Oklahoma’s attorney general argued that Glossip should receive clemency, but last April, the state parole board voted not to recommend clemency for Glossip and since then, his attorneys filed a motion in state district court asking a judge to prevent his execution until a clemency panel could review his case. 

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals refused, however, to accept the confession of error and determined the execution should go forward. 

“That decision cannot be the final word in this case,” Drummond told the Supreme Court in asking them to take up this case. “The injustice of allowing a capital sentence to be carried out where the conviction was occasioned by the government’s own admitted failings would be nigh unfathomable,” he said.