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‘When does time finally run out?’ Richard Glossip has maintained his innocence for 26 years on death row. A special counsel is now reviewing his case

<i>CNN</i><br/>
CNN

By Brynn Gingras and Linh Tran, CNN

At least once a week, Richard Glossip’s defense team connects on the phone — sometimes to catch up, and other times to strategize on how to save the life of the Oklahoma man on death row.

Glossip, who’s been behind bars for 26 years on a capital murder conviction, now has a tablet in his cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and can use it to make collect phone calls.

“It’s one of the scariest things, especially if you’re an innocent person, to know they’re going to take your life for something you had nothing to do with,” Glossip told CNN in an exclusive interview during one of those phone calls.

Last month, Glossip learned of his ninth execution date: May 18. For years, he’s been dealt a string of reprieves and stays, and this latest date comes at the order of newly elected Oklahoma Attorney General, Gentner Drummond.

“It is my responsibility to ensure that we are appropriately responding to all evidence that has been presented through Mr. Glossip’s conviction and incarceration,” Drummond said in a statement. “Circumstances surrounding this case necessitate a thorough review.”

Drummond’s office appointed an independent special counsel to lead that review. Glossip’s attorney, Don Knight, called it “hugely significant,” and “the right thing to do.”

“Anybody who looks at this case has to come to the same result and that’s what this whole purpose is, making sure everyone sees the truth,” said Glossip.

In August, Oklahoma said it planned to execute 24 death row inmates through 2024, despite cries by critics and experts who pointed not only to outstanding questions of the mental fitness or possible innocence of some but also the state’s recent history of botched lethal injections. In recent weeks, the state adjusted that pace to about one man every 60 days at Drummond’s request, citing a burden on the corrections department.

Convicted of murder-for-hire

Glossip, a former motel manager, is convicted of murder for ordering the 1997 killing of his boss, Barry Van Treese.

Another employee, then-19-year-old Justin Sneed, admitted to killing Van Treese with a baseball bat in Oklahoma City. But prosecutors told jurors Sneed did so in a murder-for-hire plot masterminded by Glossip. Sneed received a life sentence in exchange for his testimony against Glossip.

Glossip has always maintained his innocence.

He was first convicted and sentenced in 1998, but that was overturned in 2001 because of ineffective defense counsel. He was again convicted in 2004 and again sentenced to death.

“You do scream it and scream it, and then finally somebody stands up and says, ‘There’s something to this,'” says Glossip of his lawyer Knight, who began representing him in 2015.

That year, Glossip was more than an hour past his execution time when the governor issued a stay based on the constitutionality of the state’s execution protocols. Glossip has been on the verge of execution three times before, even being served three separate last meals, according to his attorney.

Knight, along with his paralegal Meri Wright, have experienced highs and lows in their pursuit to exonerate Glossip.

“It’s hard to not feel emotionally attached to the case, but also to Rich himself,” Wright told CNN. “It’s an extraordinary burden to try to save another human being’s life.”

November dealt another legal setback, when the Oklahoma Criminal Court Appeals denied a petition for a hearing on new evidence in the case.

It followed an explosive, more than 300-page report released by international law firm Reed Smith that concluded, “No reasonable juror hearing the complete record would have convicted Richard Glossip of first-degree murder.”

The report was commissioned by a bi-partisan group of 34 state lawmakers and led by state Republican Kevin McDugle, who has vowed to repeal the death penalty in Oklahoma if Glossip is executed.

McDugle told CNN the report changed the minds of many of his colleagues who believe in capital punishment but want to ensure the state’s death penalty process is just.

New evidence uncovered

Within the last year, Reed Smith and Glossip’s defense team have uncovered even more evidence that they say proves Glossip’s innocence.

Among the documents is a letter from Sneed to his attorney, in which Glossip’s defense argues he may have been trying to recant his testimony.

“There are a lot of things right now that are eating at me. Somethings I need to clean up,” Sneed wrote in the letters, which were shown to CNN by Glossip’s defense and are part of an amendment to Reed Smith’s initial report.

In another letter, Sneed wrote, “Do I have the choice of recanting my testimony at any time during my life…”

In a separate letter shown to CNN, Sneed’s public defender responded to one of his letters saying, “I can tell by the tone of your letter that some things are bothering you… Had you refused (to testify against Glossip) you would most likely be on death row right now.”

The Oklahoma County public defender’s office, responsible for Sneed’s attorney at the time, declined to comment.

“We always suspected that Justin Sneed really wanted to, at some point, tell the truth,” Knight said. “But from those papers, we could tell that even though he was trying to, his lawyer at the time was telling him, ‘Don’t do it.'”

What happens next

The special counsel appointed by the state attorney general began their deep dive into the case last month.

There is no deadline for a report on the findings, but it will be “before the state pardon and parole board meets, scheduled for April 12,” a spokesperson for Drummond’s office told CNN.

The office also said the attorney general spoke to the Van Treese family before ordering the review. Van Treese’s sister declined to comment to CNN for this story.

In the meantime, Glossip waits.

He said he has made peace with his situation and tries to accomplish something every day.

He writes poetry. He speaks to his wife — whom he married last year — on his tablet phone each day. He watches religious services at their church on television so he can see her on camera.

He said he’s looking forward to their first anniversary, which he wouldn’t have been able to celebrate had this latest delay not happened.

And he prays for more people to hear his cries of innocence.

“I’ve been through this so many times,” Glossip said.

“It’s still scary, it will always be scary until they finally open this door and let me go, or remove this from over my head completely, so I don’t have to worry about, ‘Are they going to kill me next month? Or the month after that? When does time finally run out?'”

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