On April 25, Virginia plans to execute Ivan Teleguz despite evidence that his conviction and death sentence were based on false testimony. As members of a growing group of innocent people who have been exonerated from death row, we recognize that it can take time for the truth to come to light, but when it does, we must act. We urge Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to stop Teleguz’s execution and keep Virginia from making a fatal mistake.
Although some doubt that our justice system would allow an innocent person to be convicted and sentenced to die based on false testimony, we at Witness to Innocence know beyond a shadow of a doubt that innocent men end up on death row. Each of us was convicted, sentenced to die and left to watch with confusion and frustration as courts were unable or unwilling to correct the injustice — all the time knowing that we were innocent.
And we also know that we were not exonerated and spared execution just because we were innocent. We were spared because we were the lucky ones. Investigations uncovered witnesses, documents and other evidence not provided to jurors at trials. Witnesses came forward at personal risk. Political leaders and judges allowed thorough investigation and did not accept superficial denials of prosecutorial misconduct. We were not put to death before the truth came to light.
There have been 158 exonerations from death row since 1973. In Virginia, it took one governor to commute the death sentence of Earl Washington, and another governor years later to pardon Washington when new evidence confirmed his innocence. Others have been less fortunate.
There is just too much doubt regarding Teleguz’s guilt to allow his case to move one day closer to the April 25 execution.
The prosecution’s case depended on three witnesses, who testified that Teleguz hired someone to murder his former girlfriend, Stephanie Sipe. The Supreme Court of Virginia found that, to convict Teleguz, the jury had to believe the testimony of Michael Hetrick, Edwin Gilkes and Aleksey Safanov.
The testimony of Hetrick — the man who actually killed Sipe — has always been suspect. During questioning, police told Hetrick that he must agree to testify against Teleguz then and there — before the questioning concluded — or he would face the death penalty himself. He was told that police wanted Teleguz for the crime and would do whatever it took to get him. An investigator gave Hetrick a nine-page summary of the police investigation and encouraged him to read it all, “understand the facts of this case,” and stick to that story. Testimony from Gilkes and Safanov, who also received generous promises from the government in exchange for their testimony, was needed to shore up Hetrick’s tainted account. (Safanov was quickly released from incarceration because of an unusual sentence cut; Gilkes is to be released in 2018.) Since trial, Gilkes and Safanov have admitted in sworn written statements that their testimony implicating Teleguz was false.
And there is additional evidence that Teleguz’s death sentence was based on indisputably false evidence. Jurors were told that he must be put to death because he was involved in arranging another murder outside a recreation center in Ephrata, Penn., and was a person who could “dial up a murder” even from prison. Defense investigators and police have now confirmed, however, that there was no murder outside a recreation center in Ephrata, and the testimony and prosecutor’s argument were false.
Reasons for our own wrongful convictions have striking similarities to Teleguz’s case. For example, in the cases of Kwame Ajamu, Wiley Bridgeman, Ricky Jackson and Paris Powell, key prosecution witnesses were coerced by police into giving false statements and testimony, and they later recanted their testimony. In cases such as Powell’s and Joe D’Ambrosio’s, witnesses had been given generous deals in return for their false testimony at trial. And in many cases— including those of Ajamu, Bridgeman, Jackson, D’Ambrosio and Perry Cobb — there was no physical evidence tying the defendants — us — to the crimes.
Execution is an absolute and irrevocable punishment. We know firsthand that innocent men can be convicted, sentenced to die and face execution. Based on what we know now, there is too great a risk that Virginia will make the fatal mistake of executing an innocent man.
McAuliffe should intervene and stop the April 25 execution of Ivan Teleguz.
Nathson Fields, an Illinois death row exoneree, is board chair of Witness to Innocence.