RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A man sentenced to death in a 2006 murder-for-hire case won a reprieve Thursday when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe commuted his sentence to life without parole, citing concerns about false information that he believes influenced the jury’s sentencing decision.
Ivan Teleguz was scheduled to be executed Tuesday, but McAuliffe commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It’s the first execution that the Democratic governor has stopped since taking office. McAuliffe is a Catholic who has said he’s personally opposed to capital punishment, but will uphold the law as governor.
Teleguz was convicted in 2006 of hiring a man to kill 20-year-old Stephanie Sipe, the mother of his child. Sipe was stabbed to death in her Harrisonburg apartment. Sipe’s mother found her body two days later, along with their 2-year-old son, who was unharmed.
McAuliffe said he believes Teleguz is guilty, even though two witnesses recanted their testimony implicating him in the crime.
But McAuliffe said he would spare Teleguz’s life because part of his trial “terribly flawed.” The jury was told that the man was involved in another murder in Pennsylvania, which never happened, McAuliffe said. It was also suggested that Teleguz was involved with the “Russian mafia,” but there’s no evidence to support that, McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe said he thinks that made jurors fear for their safety, noting that they asked the judge whether Teleguz could access their personal information and addresses.
“To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear,” McAuliffe said.
Teleguz’s attorneys said the man is grateful to those who supported his clemency effort and said he will continue to fight to clear his name.
“He asks for their continued support as he works now to fully prove that he is not responsible for Stephanie’s death,” attorneys Elizabeth Peiffer and Michael Williams said.
Marsha Garst, the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.
The governor had faced mounting pressure to intervene after the newspaper in Virginia’s capital city, former Virginia attorneys general and death penalty opponents raised concerns about executing a possibly innocent man.
Since Teleguz went to death row, two men who implicated him have said they lied under pressure from investigators they claim were fixated on putting Teleguz away.
Kevin Whitfield, the lead police investigator in the case, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he has never wavered from his belief that Teleguz is guilty.
“I do not have any doubt,” Whitfield said. “I feel as convinced as today as I did back then.”
Sipe’s sister has also said her family still believes Teleguz is responsible.
After the two prosecution witnesses recanted their trial testimony in written affidavits, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a judge to conduct a hearing on Teleguz’s innocence claim.
But the judge rejected Teleguz’s bid after one of the witnesses, Edwin Gilkes, refused to testify and another — who had been deported to Kyrgyzstan — didn’t show up. Michael Hetrick, whose DNA was found at the scene, again testified that Teleguz hired him and Gilkes to kill Sipe.
Teleguz’s attorneys and supporters say that to save his own life, Hetrick told investigators what they wanted to hear. Hetrick was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison in exchange for testifying against Teleguz.
Teleguz’s family came to the U.S. when he was a child to escape religious persecution in Ukraine, when it was controlled by the Soviet Union. He’s is deeply religious and spends most of his time in prison doing Bible studies, his attorneys said.
McAuliffe has overseen two executions since he took office in 2014. Convicted serial killer Alfredo Prieto was given a lethal injection in October 2015. Ricky Gray, who killed a well-known Richmond family of four, was executed in January.
Eight death row prisoners in Virginia have been granted clemency since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The last Virginia governor to spare a condemned man was Gov. Tim Kaine, when he commuted convicted murder Percy Walton’s sentence to life in prison in 2008.
The governor’s decision in Teleguz’s case comes as an aggressive effort in Arkansas to conduct that state’s first executions since 2005 stalled for a second time this week when courts blocked lethal injections. Pharmaceuticals companies and other suppliers have objected to their drugs being used in executions and have been trying to stop states from getting supplies for lethal injections.
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