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Joe Berlinger Explores Controversial Death Penalty Case

The acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger tells TV Real about his two-night documentary event Killing Richard Glossip, which airs on Investigation Discovery (ID) this month.

On three separate occasions, Richard Glossip thought he was going to be executed by the state of Oklahoma. All three times the proceedings were stopped. As he awaits a new execution date, pending the outcome of a state-wide investigation into lethal injection drugs, many of his advocates believe he is actually innocent. His winding tale from motel manager to death row takes center stage in the new two-night documentary Killing Richard Glossip, which airs on ID in the U.S. on April 17 and 18.

***Image***Produced by RadicalMedia, Killing Richard Glossip was created and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose films include Brother’s Keeper, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulgerand, most famously, the Paradise Lost trilogy, which helped lead to the release of the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three after 18 years of incarceration.

“I’m deeply involved in the criminal justice system as a filmmaker,” Berlinger tells TV Real, and as such, he tends to keep tabs on “outrageous cases.” For him, Glossip’s falls into that category.

In 1998, Glossip was convicted of hiring Justin Sneed to murder his boss, Barry Van Treese, based entirely on Sneed’s testimony. After the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals investigated prosecutorial misconduct in the case, Glossip secured a new trial in 2004, was convicted again and then sentenced to death in 2007. His first execution date was set for November ***Image***20, 2014. When the Oklahoma Attorney General said the state didn’t have adequate supplies of lethal injection drugs, the execution was postponed until September 16, 2015. The execution was then delayed until September 30 so that judges could review Glossip’s new appeal. On September 30, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin issued a 37-day stay of execution—again over the issue of the lethal injection drugs. Since October 2015, a grand jury has been investigating the implementation of the death penalty in Oklahoma, which, Berlinger says, has a history of “botched and nearly botched executions.” That review is still pending. And Glossip is out of appeals.

“The state is convinced they have to kill this guy,” Berlinger says. “Many of us believe he’s innocent. Once this grand jury hands in its findings, they are going to reset his execution and try to kill him for the fourth time. We all felt that there was an opportunity to quickly put something together during this waiting period to show his bizarre odyssey through the legal system. It’s not just all the troubling aspects of his case that make a lot of people think he’s innocent. This guy has had three last meals. I thought if we got something on television before a new execution date was set, we might be able to help.”

Berlinger says that he opposes the death penalty, for many reasons, “not the least of which is that I made a film about the West Memphis Three and it’s the starkest example of how an innocent person could have been put to death. Human beings run the justice system, and human beings make mistakes. We’ve seen time and time again how innocent people can be executed. There have been 150 death row exonerations since the mid-’70s. And that’s when the legal system is working. So to even put one person to death who is innocent makes the system untenable.”

However, Berlinger continues, “I don’t want this film to be confused as something that is anti-death penalty. It’s a line that we rode very carefully. We avoided rhetoric about anti-death penalty activism in the show because we want to focus on the fact that there’s a very strong argument that this guy is actually innocent. That was our focus. I think Richard Glossip did not commit the crime. The show does not necessarily say, hey he’s absolutely innocent. The show says, there are a lot of problems with this case, there are questions that need to be looked into, and it’s bizarre that this became a death penalty case to begin with. So before you execute this guy, give him a new trial because there are so many problematic aspects of the case that don’t make sense.”

The doc includes interviews with some of Glossip’s supporters, including Susan Sarandon, Richard Branson and noted anti-death penalty activist and author Sister Helen Prejean (played by Sarandon in the acclaimed film Dead Man Walking). It was Prejean who convinced attorneys Don Knight and Mark Olive to take on Glossip’s case pro-bono. The doc also relies heavily on reenactments, Berlinger says.

“There was not a ton of archival footage. So from a storytelling standpoint, it definitely presented some challenges. The decision was made to do two things. First, we worked really hard to get the attorneys, Don Knight, who is featured in the show, and Mark Olive, who did not want to be in the show, to let us in [to the investigation]. Second, and this is new for me, we went down the road of re-creations. They had to be very cinematic and they had to go beyond the typical re-creations that you sometimes see in these shows.”

The other challenge for Berlinger was time. “These grand jury findings that I was talking about were supposed to come out months earlier. So the original plan was to put the show on in the fall of 2016. When I began the project in March 2016 I—and pardon the analogy—felt like I had a gun to my head. I felt tremendous pressure to get this thing done quickly because the timing of the show was very important. We wanted to make sure it was on television before a future potential execution date. Otherwise it wouldn’t be doing any good. So luckily for us, it’s taken the grand jury far longer to issue its findings. To knock off a multi-part series like this that has present-tense investigative elements to it in under a year was quite a challenge.”

Killing Richard Glossip also includes footage from an hour-long on-camera interview Berlinger conducted with Glossip in prison, as well as audio from numerous phone calls between the two. “I feel like I got to know him pretty well. It took us two years, and we were the first media in quite a while to have an on-camera interview. I have to say the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the person we dealt with who allowed us access to Richard Glossip, was terrific. I want to commend that department that let us in. It’s not a given that you can interview someone on death row or in prison. The prison has broad discretion to deny access.”

In this political climate under President Trump, whose campaign promised a return to law and order in the country, gaining access to prisoners like Glossip may become much harder in the future.

“I have made it my business to shine a light on injustice in the criminal justice system,” Berlinger says. “I think too many mistakes get made and we have to hold people in power accountable. Our most fundamental core American value is our personal liberty. A prosecutor has very broad powers to take that liberty away, and most of the time it’s justified. But there are huge problems with over-sentencing, with racial disparities, in the criminal justice system. And because our most cherished American value is our personal liberty, I feel it’s my calling to make sure that when that liberty is taken away, it’s taken away fairly and justly.”

About Mansha Daswani

Mansha Daswani is the editor and associate publisher of World Screen. She can be reached on


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