It’s an axiom every law student learns in the first year of legal education: “All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
Although the idea was made famous in the legal community by William Blackstone in Chapter 27 of his tome Commentaries on the Laws of England, prioritizing the protection of the innocent against wrongful conviction is a moral imperative anchored in sacred texts far older than the 1760s.
In Christianity, on the destruction of the city of Sodom, Abraham spoke with God at Genesis 18:23-32, and God declared that should He find even ten righteous people in Sodom, He would spare the city. In Judaism, 12th century Torah scholar Moses Maimonides said, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.” In Islam, one hadith requires Muslims to “drop the prescribed penalties whenever you can. When you can find a way out for a Muslim, then clear his way. For if the imam errs, it is better that he err on the side of leniency than on the side of punishment.”
So universal is the principle that it is now ingrained in the legal systems of all civilized nations. For the United States, the innocent are shielded by the requirement that prosecutors in a criminal trial prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the highest burden of proof in American law.
Tragically, however, this burden — as difficult as it is to meet — is imperfect. Defendants whose guilt is doubtful occasionally slip through the cracks and find themselves a captive of the state, condemned by their peers as society’s villain. When it is a matter of life and death, the moral affront only intensifies.
Such is the case of Ivan Teleguz.
In 2006, Ivan Teleguz was convicted of capital murder for hire when he allegedly paid two men to kill Stephanie Yvonne Sipe, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. After a four-day trial, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Teleguz was guilty and that his actions were sufficiently heinous to warrant the death penalty.
According to a press release by Teleguz’s attorneys, however, the trial was rife with problems, many of which did not emerge until after his conviction.
Most significant: Two of the prosecution’s critical witnesses have recanted their testimony in sworn, written statements, explaining their false testimony was given in exchange for leniency in their own cases and that there is “no reason to think” Teleguz was involved in Sipe’s murder.
Aleksey Safanov, a Russian emigrant seeking a visa to remain in the country and facing his own federal criminal charges, told a U.S. deputy marshal that Teleguz had told him that he had hired someone to murder Sipe. This information — later recanted — led investigators to a man named Edwin Gilkes.
Gilkes, one of the men Teleguz allegedly asked to kill Sipe, confessed that, as a part of his testimony, he had fabricated a prior murder said to have occurred in Ephrata, Pa., and pinned it on Teleguz. The prosecution then used this testimony to paint Teleguz as a dangerous man to convince the jury to sentence Teleguz to death. Since Gilkes’s retraction, both federal law enforcement and a senior assistant attorney general have confirmed there is no evidence the Ephrata murder ever occurred.
With the testimony of two key witness debunked, the only remaining evidence against Teleguz is the testimony of Michael Hetrick, the man who killed Sipe. But Hetrick’s testimony is questionable at best, especially given that it was only after Hetrick was threatened with the death penalty did he agree to inculpate Teleguz.
A federal judge in 2013 agreed to hear “live testimony” to more closely assess Teleguz’s claim of innocence under federal law. Yet the endeavor was doomed from the start. With Safanov deported to Kyrgyzstan, his corrected testimony exceeded the court’s reach, and prosecutors once again threatened Hetrick and Gilkes with harsher punishment if they testified differently than they had at trial (Hetrick would face the death penalty, and Gilkes would lose a 2018 release date). As a result, Gilkes refused to testify, and Hetrick stuck to his story.
As a last resort, Teleguz’s attorneys filed a petition for clemency with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) requesting the execution be halted.
Clearly, in Teleguz’s case, there are reasonable doubts surrounding his conviction and his sentence that were unknown to the jury at the time. Teleguz is scheduled to die on April 25 for a crime it is entirely plausible he did not commit. The law requires that when so much reasonable doubt exists, the state lacks the power to deprive a person of his most cherished natural right: life.
McAuliffe should grant Teleguz’s petition for clemency.