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How Belfast Sky News reporter befriended death row killer - and why he believes he's innocent

Sky News reporter Ian Woods was present three times for Richard Glossip's scheduled, but aborted, executions. He has written a book on why he believes he's innocent

Ivan Little

The phone call that Belfast-born Sky News reporter Ian Woods took as he waited for the arrival of Martin McGuinness' funeral cortege in Derry's City Cemetery came from another place associated with death thousands of miles away... on Death Row in Oklahoma.

And the man who was ringing him last March was a convicted killer who had been served a final pre-execution meal on three different nights, but who had been saved from the death penalty at the last minute on each occasion.

Woods' conversation with Richard Glossip in Derry was the last one he ever had with him.

Not because the death sentence was carried out, but because Glossip had decided to end all contact with the journalist who'd brought his story to millions of TV viewers around the world and not without personal cost.

To highlight what the newsman saw as the injustices perpetrated on an innocent man, Woods, who's built a journalistic career on the solid foundations of objectivity, put his impartiality aside as he became part of Glossip's story rather than just an observer.

Indeed, Woods was so close to the case that at the three scheduled, but aborted, executions, he was waiting to witness Glossip's death by lethal injection from the viewing gallery of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

And now Woods, who's from the Oldpark area, has written a book about the campaign for justice for Glossip, whom he once described as a friend before the American fell out with him - apparently because he was planning to write his own memoir.

Glossip had been found guilty of a 1997 murder largely on the evidence of a work colleague, Justin Sneed, who admitted carrying out the actual killing of their boss.

Motel owner, Barry Van Treese, was beaten to death with a baseball bat in room 102 of his Best Budget Inn in Oklahoma.

Nineteen-year-old Sneed, the motel maintenance man, initially said he killed Van Treese during a botched robbery, but he later claimed that Glossip, the manager of the down-market establishment, paid him to carry out the murder.

In return for testifying at the trial against Glossip, Sneed was spared the death penalty and jailed instead for life.

But Glossip rejected a deal to plead guilty in return for a similar life sentence, saying he wasn't going to admit to a crime he didn't commit.

But even so, he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to die in a part of the US with a record for more executions than any other.

And it was as Glossip prepared to face an executioner for the first time that Ian Woods got involved.

He says he'd been working on a story about the overall US death penalty policy when he stumbled on Glossip's case, which he thought would be a perfect illustration of the arguments for and against. What Woods didn't realise, however, was that Glossip's death sentence would consume a large part of his life in the months to come.

He says: "I was caught up by the whole thing - more so than by any other story I have covered in 35 years in the media world."

Woods talked to other journalists who had interviewed Glossip and friends who knew him and who believed he was innocent.

Woods was invited to attend the first planned execution and, after a lot of soul-searching, agreed to go, thinking it would give him a unique perspective on capital punishment.

Yet this was a man who couldn't bear to watch as his own mother slipped away in a Belfast care home last year.

He says: "I couldn't witness my own mum dying and yet I was prepared to witness the death of Richard Glossip because I felt it was my duty to be there."

In the end, that first execution in Oklahoma was halted, but Woods was by now engrossed and one campaigner he met was Sister Helen Prejean, who is one of America's most famous opponents of capital punishment.

Her book about working with death row inmates was turned into the 1996 movie, Dead Man Walking, which won three Oscars for director Tim Robbins and actors Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, who has also championed Glossip's cause.

Woods spoke to Glossip on the telephone before visiting him on Death Row.

And he quickly became convinced that he was innocent of murder, though he had stayed silent after he discovered what Sneed had done.

"I don't think that made Glossip guilty of murder, yet he was going to be executed, while the man who committed the actual killing was going to be spared," says Woods, who set about broadcasting stories on Sky and compiling podcasts about the case, as well as producing a documentary.

Woods says the trauma of the on-off executions only heightened Glossip's mental problems.

He says the reasons for stopping them have ranged from pharmaceutical companies refusing to allow their products to be used in the lethal injections to mistakes over which drugs were to be administered.

All of Oklahoma's scheduled executions have been on hold since the last execution of Richard Glossip was halted after officials noticed the error over the drugs.

But Woods says he's convinced that the authorities will still try to execute Glossip and it's unlikely that he will be there if it should ever happen, because the condemned man refuses to talk to him anymore.

Woods says the fall out seems to have focused on his book in which ITV Drama have already expressed an interest.

Woods adds:"Richard decided at a later stage that he wanted to write his own book and I said that was fine because mine was about the entire death penalty debate.

"He still wasn't happy with that, but the phone call I received when I was in Derry for the funeral was perfectly pleasant and Richard apologised, saying everything was cool between us again.

"But I never heard from him again"

Woods, who says he hopes the relationship can be repaired, admits that he is sympathetic to Glossip and doesn't want to see him executed.

"I've already said that on this occasion, if people are looking for an unbiased report, they should look for somebody else. I've held my hands up and said that I have stepped over the line, but I don't think that this should be happening to Richard Glossip.

"However, if someone were to come up with compelling evidence of Richard's guilt, I am not going to argue and say they're wrong," says Woods, who lived in the same street as Eamonn Holmes as a child.

After attending Belfast Royal Academy (BRA), he went to study at Warwick University, where the seeds for his journalistic career were sown.

He started in local radio in Coventry, before moving to the BBC, where he was the presenter of the regional news programme, East Midlands Today, for five years.

He joined Sky in 1995, first as a sports reporter and then as sports editor.

For several years, he covered every England football match at home and abroad, including the World Cup in 1998.

He returned to news reporting in 2001, and after spells in the United States and Afghanistan was appointed Sky News' US Correspondent based in Washington.

He has reported from all over the world, but he says he may return to live in Northern Ireland when his globetrotting days are done.

He's already a regular home-comer and not just for family visits, for he is also a member of the Green and White Army and he followed Northern Ireland to the Euros in France.

"That was brilliant.

"I loved every second of it," says Woods, who grew up as a Cliftonville fan in north Belfast.

"Those were the days when Cliftonville didn't have any great numbers of supporters. And Solitude really was Solitude.

"I remember playing at Solitude, but my football career ended when I went to BRA, where rugby was the game that we had to play."

Surviving Execution by Ian Woods, published by Atlantic Books, is out now in paperback, £8.75

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