Virginia is set to carry out a death sentence for the first time under a new protocol that shields more of the execution from public view.
Ivan Teleguz, who was convicted in the murder of his former girlfriend, is scheduled to die April 25.
Prosecutors contend that Teleguz paid to have Stephanie Sipe, the mother of his young son, killed in 2001. They said he showed the assailants Sipe’s Harrisonburg apartment, took them to Walmart to buy a fillet knife to use as the murder weapon and drove to Pennsylvania so he would have an alibi.
Teleguz has maintained his innocence, and two of the key witnesses against him have recanted. There is evidence to bolster the recantations, his attorneys say, that has never been heard in court.
Last October, the Supreme Court declined to take his case after Teleguz argued his trial attorneys were inadequate. Teleguz is appealing again on the grounds that his claims of inadequate counsel have never gotten a full hearing. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has declined to delay Teleguz’s execution for that appeal. Attorneys for Teleguz would like Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to issue a pardon or a commutation.
“Multiple witnesses have come forward that both his conviction and his death sentence are based on statements that they now admit to be lies,” attorney Elizabeth Peiffer said. “Justice would not be served by his execution.”
A British group that assists Europeans facing the death penalty in America has also worked extensively on behalf of Teleguz, who is originally from Ukraine.
If the execution goes forward, witnesses — who could include lawyers, family members of the victim and journalists — will not be able to see Teleguz until he is restrained and IV lines have been set. The change comes after the January execution of Ricky Gray, when administering the drugs took an unusually long 33 minutes.
The ACLU of Virginia has pushed back against the policy change, expressing concern about transparency and asking McAuliffe to halt Teleguz’s execution.
“Such secrecy makes it nearly impossible for the observers or the public to judge whether an execution constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because of the specific method of execution employed or the suffering it causes,” Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the state ACLU’s executive director, wrote in a letter to the governor.
McAuliffe’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
But in recent court papers, Virginia’s senior assistant attorney general, Alice T. Armstrong, wrote that Teleguz “has not identified any grave, unforeseen contingencies; only a desire to avoid the trial court’s lawful judgment.”
“More than a decade has passed since Teleguz’s jury pronounced its moral judgment,” she wrote. “The bereaved Sipe family is entitled to ‘real finality.’ ”
Sipe was found dead in her apartment July 23, 2001, her throat slashed. Her 2-year-old son was sitting in a bathtub in the next room, unharmed. It took three years for investigators to charge Teleguz, who was convicted of hiring two men, Edward Gilkes and Michael Hetrick, to kill the mother of his child. Aleksey Safanov, an associate, testified that Teleguz was tired of paying child support.
Hetrick cut his own hand while struggling with Sipe. As he was leaving, he saw Sipe’s young son in the bathtub. He turned off the water and left.
Safanov also testified that after the slaying, Teleguz complained that the killer had left his own blood at the scene. Safanov said that Teleguz offered him money to “eliminate” the first hired killer.
But after the 2006 conviction, Gilkes and Safanov recanted, writing that they had falsely implicated Teleguz under pressure from prosecutors. Safanov said he was promised a visa to stay in the country.
“I don’t have any reason to lie about all of this anymore,” Gilkes wrote in a deposition. “I feel bad about what I did to Teleguz.”
But Gilkes refused to testify again after appointed counsel warned him that he was at risk of being tried for perjury or losing his plea agreement. Safanov, who was living in Kazakhstan, never appeared in court during the appeal. Hetrick maintained that he had been paid $2,000 by Teleguz to murder Sipe.
Attorneys for Teleguz argued that Hetrick, who had his own criminal background and history of threatening to stab women, was fed information by interrogators.
Teleguz’s attorneys also argued that the trial was flawed because their client was implicated in a supposed Ephrata, Pa., killing that never occurred. Gilkes testified that he was with Teleguz in Ephrata one day when two men, apparently Russian, came up and said that if they weren’t paid, another man would soon be killed. He said a man was killed in the town a few days later, and prosecutors referred to that case in arguing for the death penalty. But no such murder actually happened.
An appeals court deemed the recantations “unreliable” and upheld Teleguz’s conviction.
“While Gilkes retracted his trial testimony implicating Teleguz, he failed to provide any explanation why he and Hetrick traveled to Harrisonburg to murder Sipe, who drove them there or how they ultimately located Sipe,” U.S. District Judge James P. Jones wrote.
Teleguz’s attorneys say that Sipe could have been killed because of drug dealing in her family and that both Gilkes and Hetrick were involved in drugs.
Teleguz is one of six men on death row in Virginia, all of whom committed their crimes over a decade ago. Like other states, Virginia has struggled with a shortage of drugs for executions. Gray was killed with a previously unused cocktail of drugs that included midazolam, a sedative experts say is not strong enough to eliminate the pain of the other two drugs used.