New Witnesses Might Be Key to Glossip’s Death Penalty Case

Death Penalty


A week and a half ago we wrote of an unusual coalition arguing in support of Richard Glossip, convicted and sentenced to death for arranging the 1997 murder of the owner of a run-down motel he was managing. An appellate court granted a temporary stay four hours prior to the scheduled execution, but Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has indicated she will not intervene in the case.

In the meantime, more witnesses are emerging who believe Mr. Glossip is innocent and was sold down the river by the acknowledged killer, Justin Sneed, who provided testimony against Mr. Glossip in exchange for escaping a death sentence.

While jailhouse informants are notoriously unreliable, Joseph Tapley does not fit the mold that well. He has been out of prison since 2002 and has gotten his life on track. He owns a business and has a wife and kids. He has nothing to gain from speaking out.

In fact, as the Intercept reports, “The last thing he wanted when he sat down to watch TV on the evening of September 15 was to get dragged into anything that might bring him or his family any harm.”

But he knew the name because he was cellmates back in 1997 with Justin Sneed in an Oklahoma County jail. Mr. Sneed was arrested for using a baseball bat to kill Barry Van Treese, the owner of the Best Budget Inn where he worked as a maintenance man.

Mr. Sneed would claim that Mr. Glossip, his supervisor had offered in him a few thousand dollars to kill the owner. Mr. Glossip denies this. “While he admitted that Sneed had told him he killed Van Treese on the morning of January 7, 1997 — and that he initially withheld what he knew from police — Glossip  insisted that he had nothing to do with the murder.”

As the Intercept reports, “As he watched the news segment, Tapley felt certain that Sneed had framed Glossip. His story did not match what he remembered Sneed saying about the crime in 1997.”

Mr. Tapley is not the only new witness. In August, Richard Glossip was featured on Dr. Phil. Following that show, Michael Scott issued an affidavit that he had also spent time in prison with Mr. Sneed, and that Mr. Sneed talked openly about the crime.

“Among all the inmates, it was common knowledge that Justin Sneed lied and sold Richard Glossip up the river,” Mr. Scott said.

The Intercept says that Mr. Tapley searched for Richard Glossip’s attorney on Google and left a message for Don Knight, a Colorado-based attorney who was part of the legal team fighting to stop Mr. Glossip’s execution.

However, the Intercept reports that it was too late. “By the time Knight’s paralegal came into their office the next morning and listened to the message, the preliminary execution protocols were underway. Knight was hundreds of miles from his desk, at the prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, in an area that did not allow cell phones.”

However, just hours before the execution, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals gave the defense team what they were looking for, additional time to give fair consideration to new evidence.

The Intercept reports that on Sunday, Mr. Knight finally sat down with Mr. Tapley. They write, “Tapley told him what he remembered from his months with Sneed. In an affidavit signed the next day, Tapley said that Sneed had offered him ‘very detailed accounts’ about his crime, including how hard it had been to kill Van Treese.I am sure that Justin Sneed acted alone,’ Tapley said. ‘He never gave me any indication that someone else was involved. He never mentioned the name of Richard Glossip to me. If Sneed had,’ Tapley said, ‘he would “definitely” remember it.’”

Mr. Tapley said at this time Mr. Sneed “was very concerned about getting the death penalty. He was very scared of it. The only thing that mattered to him was signing for a life sentence.”

The Intercept writes that the affidavit “is just the latest in a growing collection of evidence compiled by Glossip’s attorneys as their client faces his next execution date of September 30th. The documents contain some contradictions — in August, Sneed’s mother told a defense investigator that her son had sent her a letter from the Oklahoma County Jail, where he was housed with Tapley, saying that others beside himself had been involved in the murder — ‘powerful and important people,’ in her recollection. But even such inconsistencies point away from the state’s version of events, in which Sneed acted under Glossip’s sole control. And the latest affidavit from Tapley is consistent with the earlier affidavit of a former drug dealer who used to do business at the Best Budget Inn — and who said that, contrary to his claims in court, Sneed was in the grip of a severe meth addiction and would often steal in order to sustain it.”

“Justin Sneed had the twitches of a person who uses methamphetamine,” Mr. Tapley said. “He was ‘tweaking’ while he was in jail.”

There is also this: “Multiple jurors told Cross that their decision in Glossip’s case was partly motivated by the fact that Glossip might have been able to save Van Treese’s life if he had gone to police as soon as he caught wind of Sneed’s actions. But according to an affidavit from forensic pathologist Michael M. Baden, it would have been too late: Van Treese was dead ‘within minutes’ of being struck on the head with the baseball bat. “More rapid medical attention would not have changed the outcome.””

Will this new information be enough to get Mr. Glossip a new trial or at least commute the sentence to life?

There are difficulties here. Part of the problem is that witnesses like Michael Scott, and even Mr. Tapley, will have some credibility issues. Moreover, it will mean thrusting some people’s criminal pasts back into the public eye. This is something that Michael Scott learned the hard way when The Oklahoman ran a news story questioning his credibility.

As the Intercept notes, “The article, which was based on a 2005 Department of Corrections document, included Scott’s old mug shot and detailed his limited education, the many illegal drugs he had used at 18, and the fact that he admitted to having lied many times in the past.”

Mr. Knight saw that story as “retaliatory,” and “a clear attempt at intimidating anyone else who might come forward.”

“If that’s what the state can do to people who are out,” he told The Intercept, “imagine what they can do to people who are in.”

Plus there are good reasons to question jailhouse testimony. But as the Intercept notes, “there is also an irony in questioning the credibility of people like Tapley or Scott while defending Glossip’s conviction, as the editorial boards of both The Oklahoman and The Tulsa World have done. After all, if we have to dismiss the claims of former felons with very little to gain — and much to lose — by speaking out on Glossip’s behalf, how can anyone defend a death sentence based solely on the word of an admitted killer with the ultimate incentive to lie?”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 thoughts on “New Witnesses Might Be Key to Glossip’s Death Penalty Case”

  1. Tia Will

    After all, if we have to dismiss the claims of former felons with very little to gain — and much to lose — by speaking out on Glossip’s behalf, how can anyone defend a death sentence based solely on the word of an admitted killer with the ultimate incentive to lie?”

    Great summation of why the information of jail informants should not be weighed significantly in death penalty cases. Far too much faith in what the prosecution wants to believe rather than in any fact or actual evidence.

  2. Tia Will

    I was speaking to the principle, not to the specifics of this case, which I have not researched sufficiently to have an opinion. But just to help me out in the future when trying to express my opinions clearly, what was it that I wrote that made you think that I was taking a stand on guilt or innocence in this case ?

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