Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz, a 38-year-old man who was set to be executed Tuesday in the murder-for-hire of his former girlfriend.
Teleguz has maintained his innocence in the 2001 slaying of 20-year-old Stephanie Yvonne Sipe in Harrisonburg. His attorneys have argued that two key witnesses have recanted their testimony, calling his guilt into question. Multiple courts have deemed those recantations unreliable, and the man who killed Sipe has never wavered in saying that Teleguz paid him to commit the murder.
“I believe the man is guilty,” McAuliffe (D) said Thursday, but he also said that the sentencing phase of Teleguz’s trial was “terribly flawed and unfair.”
Teleguz will now serve life in prison without a chance of parole.
In their clemency petition, attorneys for Teleguz stressed that jurors were falsely told that Teleguz also was involved in a Pennsylvania murder — but that purported killing never happened. Prosecutors pointed to testimony of that supposed crime as evidence that Teleguz “solves problems” with murder.
“The jury acted on false information,” McAuliffe said. “To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice that our system holds so dear.”
In making his decision, McAuliffe said he reviewed more than 6,000 pages of documents, including letters from Sipe’s family. He called her relatives before his news conference Thursday afternoon.
“My heart aches for this family, the entire family who knew Stephanie Sipe,” McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe personally opposes the death penalty, citing his Catholic faith. But this marks the first time he has commuted a death sentence. As governor, he has presided over three executions, and at the behest of correctional officials he has pushed for more secrecy in the lethal-injection process.
The governor’s decision comes as there is increasing scrutiny over the death penalty nationwide. Many pharmaceutical companies now refuse to participate in executions, creating shortages across the country and a turn toward compounding pharmacies and drugs experts say are less effective.
In Arkansas, public officials are battling courts over an attempt to carry out eight executions this month before the state’s supply of a lethal-injection drug expires.
Teleguz’s plea for a commutation attracted high-profile support, including from billionaire Richard Branson and former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Investigators and Sipe’s family, however, are confident of Teleguz’s guilt.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister,” Sipe’s sister, Jennifer Tilley, told the Harrisonburg television station WHSV last week. “And it blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life.”
Sipe, 20, was found dead in her apartment July 23, 2001, her throat slashed. Her 2-year-old son, also Teleguz’s child, was sitting in a bathtub in the next room.
It took three years for prosecutors to charge Teleguz. The break in the case came when police encountered one of Teleguz’s acquaintances, Aleksey Safanov. Safanov, who was facing charges, told an officer that he knew Teleguz had hired a man to kill his ex-girlfriend. His motivation, Safanov said, was anger at paying child support.
Teleguz’s phone records led police to Edwin Lee Gilkes Jr., who said Teleguz had paid a man named Michael Hetrick to kill Sipe. Gilkes would later testify that Teleguz was involved in the fictitious murder in Ephrata, Pa.
Hetrick confessed, saying Gilkes was also part of the plot and that the dispute was not over child support but about money and drugs. He testified that Teleguz drove him and Gilkes to Harrisonburg on the night of Sipe’s death, then drove back to Pennsylvania to establish an alibi.
Hetrick testified that he went to Sipe’s apartment alone and asked to use the telephone. He told jurors that he cut his hand while slashing the young woman’s throat with a fillet knife. Going to the bathroom to wash his hands afterward, he found the young boy in the tub, the water still running. He turned the water off and left, leaving blood that was later matched to his DNA.
Sipe’s body was found two days later by her mother, who had attracted a neighbor with her screaming. The child was still in the tub, unharmed.
Hetrick was sentenced to life in prison, Gilkes to 15 years.
After Teleguz was sentenced to death, both Gilkes and Safanov wrote affidavits saying they had lied to investigators in hopes of leniency for their own crimes. But Gilkes refused to testify at a hearing on the issue after appointed counsel warned him that he was at risk of being tried for perjury or losing his plea agreement. Safanov, who had been deported and was living in Kazakhstan, never appeared in court during the appeal.
Hetrick, who has not recanted, “was inappropriately provided detailed information about the prosecution’s theory of the case by police, and told that he would face the death penalty himself unless he agreed to testify against Teleguz,” attorneys for the condemned man argued in their clemency petition.
The defense attorneys have argued that Gilkes and Hetrick may have targeted Sipe on their own to steal drugs and money.
“We think Gov. McAuliffe made a wise decision,” defense attorney Elizabeth Peiffer said, adding that Teleguz is “very grateful” for the support he has received.
The last time a Virginia governor commuted a death sentence was in 2008, when then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) stopped the execution of triple murderer Percy L. Walton.
Kaine commuted Walton’s sentence to life in prison without parole, saying that Walton was mentally incompetent and that putting him to death would be unconstitutional.