Impressions and Questions: Could documentary ‘Killing Richard Glossip’ end up saving him?
Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Many lawyers speak at great length, even when that is not necessary. Don Knight, lawyer for Richard Glossip, can speak with a few words, when necessary.
Concerning the potential impact of an Investigation Discovery (ID) documentary called “Killing Richard Glossip” set for broadcast on April 17 and 18, at 9/8 p.m. CST, Knight has these five painful words: “If we fail, he dies.”
During a private, world premiere screening, a crowd at the Paramount Cinema on Oklahoma City’s historic film row heard Knight and two others discuss the case of the death row inmate he calls “Rich.” Knight has worked pro bono since 2014 to prevent Glossip’s execution for his purported role in a murder-for-hire scheme that took the life of Barry Van Treese at a local hotel in 1997.
The first segment of the four-part ID program, directed by Emmy winner Joe Berlinger, was shown to reporters and (mostly) opponents of capital punishment on April 5. The diverse attendees included members of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP), including Chair Connie Johnson (a former state senator), Vice-Chair Rev. Don Heath, board members Margaret Cox, and James Rowan (himself a well-known capital punishment public defender).
Also present were about a dozen Oklahoma journalists as well as ACLU attorneys Ryan Kiesel and Brady Henderson. Respected constitutional lawyer Dale Baich viewed the film, staying after to discuss Glossip’s case with this writer and others.
Berlinger and RadicalMedia producer Kevin Huffman were scheduled to attend, but wound up stuck in the Atlanta airport for hours on end, due to a tornado (in Georgia, not Oklahoma). Berlinger’s career has been dedicated to exposing abuses in the American criminal justice system. His award-winning works include “Brother’s Keeper” (for PBS) and the “Paradise Lost Trilogy” (HBO), which contributed to the release of the wrongfully-convicted West Memphis Three, after they had spent 18 years behind bars.
Investigation Discovery is part of Discovery Communications, the world’s leading pay-TV programmer, reaching as many as 3 billion subscribers in 220 countries, ID Vice President Sara Kozak told the city audience.
The new documentary features some familiar faces and names, including Sister Helen Prejean, author of ‘Dead Man Walking’ and a passionate defender of Glossip’s innocence, Oscar winning actress Susan Sarandon.
At the premiere, Knight, a former judge and seasoned veteran of capital cases across America, frequently spoke with a tone of awe about the impact the finished opening episode had on him when he first viewed it just days before the event here.
After originally debating with himself about the wisdom of supporting ID’s documentary idea, Knight said that in the end, “They had unfettered access to talk to Rich. They could ask anything.”
Berlinger and his crew ultimately “embedded” in the case and were granted highly unusual access to state correctional facilities, including the Penitentiary in McAlester where Glossip and 43 other death row inmates reside.
Knight said, “The only ‘control’ I had over the content was whether or not it should happen.” Now, he believes, “They did a good investigation of the case. Joe is as good as they come. … This is Joe Berlinger’s film. It’s not from us.” He said, with that awed tone, “They were allowed to do things we couldn’t do.”
The “us” and “we” consists of Knight, attorney Mark Olive and para-legal Meri Wright, who also appears frequently in the documentary. Also featured on-camera is Justin Sneed, a hotel handyman and the man who actually used a baseball bat to murder Van Treese. Sneed is serving a life sentence, which he received in exchange for his testimony against Glossip.
Sneed has shared at least eight different versions of the killing story over the past two decades, beginning with what he told Oklahoma City Police detectives in initial interrogations.
Video clips of those interrogations are featured in the documentary, but were never shown to jurors in Glossip’s two trials. Knight points out the detectives used a controversial method he says is “designed to get a confession. The interrogator assumes the air of knowing more than he does. The whole idea is to get a person to confess.”
Knight observes, having studied the transcripts extensively, the lead detective told Glossip “he’s not gonna lie. Then in the next sentence, he lies.”
Without so much as a parking ticket before his arrest, and despite the interrogation methods, Glossip then and for two decades since has consistently maintained his innocence of the crime. Knight opened his comments here by saying, “I can’t forget that Barry Van Treese died. He was killed. We don’t want to compound that by killing an innocent man.”
Glossip, who has been on the verge of execution three times, is also featured in the first segment.
According to Knight, Glossip told him, “I can’t do that again. We have to make it where I don’t have to do that again.” And still, as Knight notes, “every day he lives with that possibility.”
Kozak, ID channel’s senior vice president of production, began the event by telling the crowd, “The part where he talks about being at the edge of execution on those three different occasions is some of the most moving film-making I’ve ever seen.” Kozak thanked Oklahomans who had assisted the documentary makers and in preparation for the local showing, including reporter Darla Shelden, who is also a supporter of OK-CADP.
Knight says he marvels that Glossip “doesn’t have the cynicism you’d expect. He somehow manages to keep hope.”
As the documentary is shown, Knight hopes “to flush out new information. … There are more people out there who know the truth. We know there is more information out there.” The process of saving Richard Glossip, he believes, “has to succeed.”
Glossip’s story has become a world-wide sensation, an unparalleled example of lingering and powerful doubt about the functioning of the criminal justice system, even after two jury trials, multiple appeals and detailed coverage by investigative reporters.
One of those reporters is The Intercept journalist Jordan Smith, who is featured in the film and participated in the discussion panel, along with Knight and Kozak, here in Oklahoma City.
Smith explained how her visit to the room where Van Treese was killed, was unlike any other experience she has had. She said it was illuminating to experience how close the hotel where Van Treese died and Glossip worked was to a strip joint referenced in the story, and to the credit union parking lot where the murdered man’s car was found parked haphazardly.
In an exchange with this reporter last month, Knight distilled his “witness” to the truth as he sees it:
“It’s vitally important to Rich Glossip that his story be told. That no matter what happens to him, people know that he did not have anything to do with the murder of Barry Van Treese. And we know that there are people out there who know what really happened at the Best Budget Inn on January 7, 1997. People who saw or heard something, or talked with someone who saw or heard something. We hope that this show helps them to remember, and then come forward, to help save an innocent man from a wrongful death.”
Glossip has had three last suppers.
He does not have disciples. He has supporters who believe he is innocent, including this reporter.
They hope the documentary “Killing Richard Glossip” will wind up Saving Richard Glossip.
If you have information about Glossip’s case, visit www.RichardGlossip.com.
Watch “Killing Richard Glossip” on April 17 & 18 on Investigation Discovery (ID) Channels in Oklahoma City:
ATT U-verse – Channel 260 / HD 1260
COX – Channel 103 / HD 761
DISH – Channel 192 / HD 192
DIRECTV – Channel 285 / HD 285
Find your local channel listing here.