16 Sep 2015

Oklahoma is about to execute a man who is probably innocent. "No physical evidence ties him to the crime. There is no motive that withstands scrutiny. The detectives in the case engaged in tactics known to increase the likelihood of witnesses providing false statements."

Oklahoma is set to execute Richard Glossip, despite grave doubts about his guilt. A chorus of people that includes Republican former Sen. Tom Coburn; Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson; and Barry Switzer, the beloved former Oklahoma Sooners football coach, has called for Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to grant a stay of execution. If she does not, and if the Supreme Court does not step in, Glossip will be put to death Wednesday.
The Supreme Court considered Glossip’s case in June, though the issue before the court dealt narrowly with Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure. The court ruled 5–4 in Glossip v. Gross that states may continue to use a cocktail of drugs that has led to prolonged, possibly excruciating executions. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent suggesting that the death penalty is too broken to fix and that the Supreme Court should reconsider its constitutionality. Justice Antonin Scalia ridiculed Breyer’s suggestion, treating it as nothing more than a recycled request that a minority of the court has raised over the years: “Welcome to Groundhog day,” he wrote.
Scalia is correct. It is Groundhog Day—just not in the way he intended. Over and over again, the Supreme Court has been chillingly dismissive of serious questions about the death penalty. And over and over again, new evidence has suggested or even proved that the condemned prisoners at the center of these cases are innocent.
Two examples are particularly striking. Scalia specifically mentioned half brothers Leon Brown and Henry Lee McCollum, both on death row at the time, in one opinion. He wrote that an execution would be an “enviable” death for Brown and McCollum relative to the death of the victim—an “11-year old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.” In another decision, Chief Justice John Roberts ridiculed the claim of then-condemned Paul House that the scratches on his body did not demonstrate that he committed murder, but rather that he had obtained the wounds from “tearing down a building, and from a cat.” “Scratches from a cat, indeed,” Roberts wrote mockingly.
DNA evidence later cleared these men, saving the lives of Henry Lee McCollum and Paul House despite the fallibility of our institutions of justice. Unfortunately, there is no DNA test that can save Richard Glossip’s life. 
In 1997, Justin Sneed killed Barry Van Treese, a motel owner for whom both Sneed and Glossip worked. The police found Sneed’s fingerprints all over the bloody crime scene and in the victim’s vehicle. Sneed later confessed to the killing. The prosecution’s theory at Glossip’s trial was that Glossip pressured Sneed into murdering Van Treese.
What evidence supported the state’s theory? Not much. The prosecution claimed that Glossip wanted Van Treese dead because Glossip was embezzling money from the motel. At trial, though, Van Treese’s own brother testified that the budget shortage involved “really insignificant amounts of money.” Then there was the motel’s front-desk clerk, who said that Glossip told her not to clean the room where Van Treese was killed. At the trial, though, Sneedtestified that he—and not Glossip—had asked the clerk not to clean the room.
Sneed was the state’s star witness. The prosecution gave him a sweetheart deal: In exchange for his testimony against Glossip, the state waived the death penalty. The problem is that the substance of Sneed’s testimony at trial was invented by the state. As Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith report, the homicide detective in the case told Sneed:
“Before you make your mind up on anything,” [detective] Bemo cautioned him [Sneed], “I want you to hear some of the things that we’ve got to say to you.” Sneed was read his rights, and then Bemo leaned in: “We know this involves more than just you, okay?” Sneed told Bemo that he didn’t “really know what to say about” what happened to Van Treese. “Well,” Bemo said, “Everybody is saying you’re the one that did this and you did it by yourself and I don’t believe that. You know Rich is under arrest, don’t you?” No, Sneed said, he didn’t know that. “So he’s the one,” Bemo replied. “He’s putting it on you the worst.”
If Sneed didn’t want to talk about the involvement of anyone else, Bemo said he would be happy to walk Sneed into the jail and book him for Van Treese’s murder, “and you would be facing this thing on your own,” Bemo said. “And I don’t think it’s just you.”
Sneed obliged, confessing to the murder and blaming Glossip for it.
Richard Leo of the University of San Francisco Law School, arguably the country’s foremost expert on false confessions, concluded after watching a video of the interrogation that the tactics the detectives used on Sneed “are substantially likely to increase the risk of eliciting false statements, admissions, and confessions.” This is because, Leo contends, the detectives “presumed the guilt of Richard Glossip from almost the start and sought to pressure and persuade Justin Sneed to implicate Richard Glossip.”


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