Director Joe Berlinger believes personal liberty is a fundamental American value.
When the government and prosecutors have the power to take that liberty away, he says it should be done fairly and justly. In his opinion, this power was abused in the case of Richard Glossip, who has been given a stay of execution on three separate occasions
“In the Richard Glossip case, I think it’s the poster child of why the death penalty is wrong and it’s a case that is very troubling to me,” said Berlinger in a phone interview with realscreen.
Glossip was convicted of murdering Barry Van Treese in a Best Budget Inn he owned on Jan. 7, 1997 in Oklahoma City, where Glossip worked as the manager.
Justin Sneed, the motel maintenance man, admitted to killing the victim, and his fingerprints were found in the room. But Sneed cut a deal for a life sentence instead of risking the death penalty by telling the police that Glossip hired him to do it. Glossip has always maintained his innocence, saying he had no knowledge that anyone planned to kill Van Treese.
Berlinger is no rookie when it comes to making documentaries on the criminal justice system.
From his Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three murders, to Parole Board: Victims Speak, he has been producing and directing stories about criminal justice for decades.
In Killing Richard Glossip, Berlinger said he’s not pushing anti-death penalty views, but thinks the case is deeply troubling because he doesn’t believe Glossip had due process.
The docuseries tells the story of Glossip and the re-investigation of the case with interviews from Sneed and Glossip, as well as the lead detectives and attorneys on both sides of the case.
By now, Glossip has exhausted all his legal options: he has been rejected for clemency and his execution is around the corner once Oklahoma lifts its ban on execution moratoriums. The only way for Glossip to force a new court action is for his defense team to find new evidence suggesting his innocence.
“Here is where I think the power of documentary can be effective. I don’t think the citizens of Oklahoma would willingly want to execute someone who doesn’t deserve to be executed, or at least — in my personal opinion he is innocent — the point of the show is that the case is way too problematic to put this person to death. There are too many questions, too many problems and it needs to be looked at again.”
With the case being decades-old with little physical evidence and archival footage, Berlinger was forced to do recreations of the incident — something he tends to avoid, as he prefers cinema verite.
He said he also had to get access from the defense team as the investigation unfolded.
“The defense teams are rightly wary of bringing cameras into a situation because they don’t have control.” There are legal concerns from their view about having footage being subpoenaed from the prosecutors.
But the legal team understood there were few options left and realized that having Glossip’s story on air prior to the next execution date — that could be as early as this summer — might bring forth new evidence or new witnesses which could help his case.
Berlinger said the series took about a year to shoot and edit, which he said is a quick time frame. Despite technical production challenges, for Berlinger, a difficult aspect of production was being emotionally invested in Glossip’s story.
“You don’t want to make the situation worse. You feel like you potential have a life and death outcome in your hands. The emotional pressure combined with time pressure of this project was a lot for me and my team to deal with… Having someone on the other end of that story who could be killed in a few months, you feel the weight of that responsibility while you’re making the show,” he said.
Killing Richard Glossip premieres exclusively on ID as a special two-night event on April 17 and Tuesday, April 18 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.