Vir­ginia’s gov­er­nor

Ju­rors given false details in mur­der-for-hire

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY RACHEL WEINER AND GREGORY S. SCH­NEI­DER

com­muted the sen­tence of Ivan Teleguz, who was set to be ex­e­cuted in the mur­der-for-hire killing of his ex-girl­friend.

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.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

Ivan Teleguz is shown at Speed­well Lake in Penn­syl­va­nia in 2003 with his sis­ter, Olga.

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