Richard Glossip and American Justice - By Greer Clem
I had been planning to write about the landscape of American Justice and the American penal system, but I couldn't figure out where to start. That's when Richard Glossip fell into my lap. In Richard Glossip's case, you will see so many of the flaws in the American justice system knitted together in a perfect storm. The burden of proof, that sacred keystone of our judicial system, has been devalued by those too scared to defend the truth. Obama's legacy, as treasured as it is to me, is not enough to protect the ideals of truth and justice from the Trump administration, which so clearly has no regard for facts or fairness. Over the next four years, it will be more important than ever that we hold the truth as our highest standard and that we continue to right our justice system even while under the shadow of the Trump Presidency. And so, I want to introduce Richard Glossip, both as an individual and as an idea; the idea that truth and justice are not dead in American democracy.
Richard Glossip has been sitting in a prison cell since 1998. He is a death row inmate at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, awaiting punishment for a crime he did not commit. During his trial, the state argued that Glossip commissioned his coworker, Justin Sneed, to murder their boss, Barry Van Treep, and steal his money. The state argued that Glossip promised Sneed they would split the cash so long as Sneed committed the actual crime. Sneed admitted to bludgeoning Van Treep to death with a baseball bat and was spared the death penalty as his reward for implicating Glossip. Sneed's testimony would then become Glossip's death sentence.
There was no forensic evidence that tied Glossip to the crime scene. In fact, the only evidence that may have suggested any nefarious sentiment towards Van Treep was that Glossip had embezzled a small amount of money from his boss. Van Treep's own brother took the stand to argue that the amount embezzled was insignificant. The entire case rested on the testimony of a witness who bargained away Glossip's life for his own. What is worse, it seems that the police were the first to implicate Glossip, not Sneed. When Sneed was brought in for questioning, the police told him they knew he had not acted alone and then asked if he knew that "Rich had been arrested." For anyone familiar with "Making a Murderer" and Brendan Dassey, this is hauntingly familiar.
Even more tragic, Glossip's 1998 conviction was overturned in 2001 due to ineffective assistance of counsel. He was offered a plea deal that would have sentenced him to life in prison but spared him the death penalty. Maintaining his innocence, Richard refused. Again, he went to trial. Again he was convicted. At his second trial, the jury was not shown tapes of Sneed's interrogation in which they would have seen lead Detective Bob Bemo tell Sneed that Richard was the one putting all the blame on him. Once again, Richard faced execution.
Over the years, Sneed's testimony has changed. His story has become more embellished and nonsensical with every passing day Glossip spends on death row. In 2014, Sneed's own daughter penned a letter alleging that she believes her father's testimony is not true. She wrote, "For a couple of years now, my father has been talking about recanting his original testimony. But he has been afraid to act upon it in fear of being charged with the Death Pentalty." She requested clemency for Glossip but the Parole Board rejected this petition.
Richard Glossip has been fed his final meal three times. He has faced the concept of death every day for the past nineteen years. When interviewed in 2015, he said, "I want people to know that it's not just for me that I'm speaking out. It's for other people on death row in this country who are innocent and are going to be executed for something they didn't do." This is a heart wrenching case to be sure, but why is this case specifically relevant today? Why am I writing about it? Because in today's political climate, the truth is harder to obtain than ever. We must constantly ask, "What are the facts and what is "fake news?" In a time where we are losing so much of the truth behind a political smokescreen, we cannot let Richard Glossip's fate be lost with it. Richard's case is just one example of the injustice of our penal system and the importance of the truth. We now have a President who regards the truth as whatever opinion he decides to have in the moment, and this is the man now responsible for our penal system and for the 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated in our nation's prisons. So what does this mean for American Justice?
During the presidential campaign, Trump's position on mass-incarceration was vague at best and dangerous at worst. He argued that he would be the "law and order" president, actively supporting body cameras and racial profiling. Hilary Clinton's prison reform policy was a much larger part of her campaign. She wanted to continue the work started by President Obama to reform our criminal justice system and cut down on racism within the penal system.
You will be hard pressed to find a more ardent Obama supporter than myself, but unfortunately he did not accomplish as much as I had hoped in this department during his eight years. True, he did grant clemency to more people than any President since Truman, but this was largely at the tail end of his Presidency when he had more of a blank check to do so. I do want to acknowledge the work his administration did, however, which is still significant and gives me hope. This includes the Justice Department's "Smart on Crime" initiative, which would move the focus of sentences greater than 20 years to violent crimes, and signing the Fair Sentencing Act.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go, and, in Richard Glossip's case, little time to get there. As of July 1, 2016, there were 2,905 people on death row in the United States. Since 1973, more than 155 people have been exonerated from death row with evidence of their innocence. None of those people should ever have been there.
Since 1976, approximately 2,102 people have been executed on death row. If 155 of those people had been innocent, that would mean that approximately 7% of the time, juries sent an innocent man to his death. In Richard Glossip's case, that decision was made almost solely off of the testimony, not facts, from one person.
More and more, eyewitness testimony has been largely discredited. There are various reasons behind this. Some are obvious: people make mistakes, they grow overly confident once an opinion has taken root in their mind. Some reasons are even more obvious: someone is being offered something to testify. Justin Sneed was spared his life in exchange for testimony against Richard Glossip. Now, if you watch the new documentary series, "Killing Richard Glossip," or if you do your own research, you will clearly see detectives lead Sneed to the conclusion that Richard is involved. I am not expert enough nor close enough to the situation to explain why they did this. Perhaps they were concerned no one would be satisfied that a 19 year old meth addict snapped and bludgeoned Van Treep to death for some easy money. Perhaps they thought he couldn't have acted alone. Perhaps they genuinely were trying to do their job. Whatever the reason, it is not strong enough to end this man's life.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." All three of these unalienable rights have been taken from Richard Glossip without sufficient explanation. I do not blame the 24 jurors who collectively have made this decision; I blame the nation that allows this to happen quietly. In 2015, the United States spent $80 billion keeping people incarcerated in America. I find it hard to believe that not a small portion of that money could have been allocated to a new and fair trial for Richard Glossip and anyone else on death row whose case may have even the faintest shadow of doubt.
In a criminal case, the state has the burden of proof put upon it. This means that a defendant is innocent until proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he or she is guilty of a crime. And this is as it should be. However, we are currently living in a time where the burden of proof has been neglected. Trump certainly doesn't believe in innocence before proven guilt; he does not understand the difference between opinion and fact. He, and many other politicians and government officials on both sides of the aisle, will denounce someone without sound reason purely to appease their voters. But we are a government by the people and for the people, and that includes Richard Glossip.
I wanted to write about this case not only because Richard's life in large part depends on public outcry, but because it is our duty as citizens of this nation to speak up when our voices are not being represented. Now more than ever is the time to hold truth and justice hand in hand. The search for the truth should never be rushed or half-assed. In an era when our President may no longer represent the unalienable rights endowed to us as citizens, we have to speak up and represent ourselves and each other. I urge everyone to educate yourselves on this case, to learn about the American penal system, and, as always, to stay nasty.