Supreme Court agrees to consider appeal in Oklahoma death sentence case after prosecutorial misconduct exposed

 January 23, 2024

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday announced that it had accepted a petition to review and potentially overturn the murder conviction of a death row inmate in Oklahoma.

During the next term that begins in the fall, the Supreme Court will consider the case of Richard Glossip, who faces an execution later this year for the 1997 murder of his employer at an Oklahoma City motel, according to the Associated Press.

Somewhat surprisingly, Glossip's appeal to the nation's highest court is supported by Oklahoma's Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond, who has argued that the death row inmate deserves a new trial after learning of substantial problems with the initial prosecution that resulted in a conviction and death sentence.

Independent review uncovered serious prosecutorial misconduct in prior conviction

SCOTUSblog reported that the Supreme Court, after considering Glossip's petition nearly a dozen times over the past several months, finally agreed to take up the case, particularly after AG Drummond told the court that "justice would not be served by moving forward with a capital sentence that the State can no longer defend because of prosecutorial misconduct and cumulative error."

The main issue here is that Glossip was convicted of the 1997 murder of motel owner Barry Van Treese, who employed Glossip as the manager, almost solely on the testimony of the motel's handyman, Justin Sneed, who testified in exchange for an agreement with prosecutors to avoid the death penalty and serve a life sentence that Glossip had paid him $10,000 to beat Van Treese to death in a motel room.

Except, a recent independent review of the case commissioned by Drummond found that Sneed had lied on the stand about his psychiatric issues and medication, with the prosecutors being aware of his dishonesty, as well as that other evidence in the case had been improperly destroyed, according to the AP.

In a press release on Monday, Oklahoma AG Drummond said in a statement, "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," and added, "As Oklahoma’s chief law officer, I will continue fighting to ensure justice is done in this case and every other."

Drummond noted that despite the admission from the state that Glossip had received an unfair trial, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had rejected the inmate's plea for post-conviction relief, which prompted the AG to support Glossip's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not the first intervention in Glossip's case

Interestingly enough, if this appeal is successful, it would lead to Glossip's third trial for the same murder, as his initial conviction in 1998 was overturned by the state's Court of Criminal Appeals because of ineffective counsel, though Glossip was retried and convicted a second time in 2004 -- again almost exclusively on the now-dubious testimony of Sneed.

Also of note is that this wouldn't be the first time that the Supreme Court has intervened in Glossip's case, as the nation's highest court stayed an execution scheduled for September 2015 over problems with the lethal injection cocktail of drugs and again delayed a scheduled execution in May 2023 while his appeals continued to run their course.

The AP reported that Glossip's attorney, John Mills, insisted that his client was innocent and said in a statement, "He has no criminal history, no history of misconduct during his entire time in prison, and has maintained his innocence throughout a quarter century wrongfully on death row. It is time -- past time -- for his nightmare to be over."

For what it is worth, AG Drummond doesn't believe that Glossip is innocent, but wants to make sure that there is absolutely no doubt in the public's mind about his guilt in the murder of Van Treese if and when the inmate is eventually convicted and sentenced to death a third time.

Justice Gorsuch appears to have recused himself from the case

According to SCOTUSblog, only eight justices took part in the decision to take up Glossip's appeal, as Justice Neil Gorsuch appears to have recused himself from the case, likely because he previously participated in one of the inmate's appeals when he sat on the bench of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

It is unclear if Gorsuch will also recuse himself from considering written briefs and hearing oral arguments in the fall, and thereafter vote in a final ruling, but that seems to be the most likely outcome given his recusal in considering Glossip's petition.

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