In late fall of 2014, Denver defense attorney Don Knight had just pulled up to a barbecue joint when his cellphone rang. On the line: Sister Helen Prejean. The same Sister Helen whose tireless work to end the death penalty made her the subject of 1995’s critically acclaimed feature film Dead Man Walking. Prejean was calling about Richard Glossip. And the makings of Investigation Discovery’s chilling two-night event, Killing Richard Glossip, were set into motion. (See the first hour here.)
In 1997, Glossip — an Oklahoma City motel manager and father of four with no felony record — was named the mastermind of a vicious murder. Glossip’s coworker, Justin Sneed, admitted that he alone killed the motel’s owner, Barry Van Treese, and only Sneed’s fingerprints were found at the murder scene. In a bid to avoid execution, Sneed implicated Glossip in the crime and was sentenced to life without parole. Glossip — steadfast about his innocence — rejected two plea deals and was ordered to die by lethal injection. For the past 20 years, Glossip has lived in a windowless, underground cell, suspended in a nightmarish limbo that has seen him tried twice, marched to the edge of death three times, and Oklahoma’s execution methods debated in the Supreme Court and beyond.
“There was a group that started a petition for Richard that brought it to my attention, and there was a phone number on it,” Prejean recalls of her own introduction to Glossip and his plight. “I called the woman and she set up a phone call with Richard.” With Glossip’s newest execution date looming, Prejean convinced Knight and his partner Mark Olive to take his case pro bono. And in the summer of 2016, Joe Berlinger — whose Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning Paradise Lost documentaries famously contributed to the release of the West Memphis Three after nearly two decades of wrongful imprisonment — got wind of the situation.
Berlinger knew he had to work quickly. “When I started to drill into the case facts and details, I couldn’t turn away — because, to me, this case is the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the death penalty,” Berlinger says. “I felt I had to meet the challenge.” And, in doing so, convince Knight and Olive to let him and his cameras follow them in real time as they race against the clock to prove Glossip’s innocence.
“You have to understand that, from our standpoint, the ethical aspects of it are we can’t let everybody else in, in a situation where we are keeping all of our information very close,” Knight says (Olive chose not to appear on camera). “We had to ask Rich if that was all right, and he wanted it. But they are not part of our team; they are literally a sort of outside force. And they were also doing other aspects of their own investigation that we didn’t have anything to do with. So it was OK.”
To flesh out a complex, 20-year-old story, Berlinger says he “had to rely more on re-creation than I have in the past to bring those two different conflicting versions of the accounts of what happened that night to life. It’s two men with very different versions of what they say is reality.” And, he is quick to point out, “despite my personal opinions about his guilt or innocence, this is not an advocacy piece.” Instead, it’s an education.
“I think why it’s so important to get a story like this out is you have a power system in place with politics and money feeding it, and they have their way with human beings,” Prejean exclaims. “They found in the United States, of all the counties and districts and prosecutors, 2 percent are responsible for over 70 percent of all people on death row. How do you break that? The only way you break that is us.”
Knight hopes for a more immediate payout. “I want witnesses,” he says. “I need people to come forward, because Richard is innocent and we need to get enough witnesses to get us back into court. So my one wish is that people who know or have heard or think they have an idea — come forward.”
Killing Richard Glossip airs April 17-18 at 9/8c on Investigation Discovery