RICHMOND – Governor McAuliffe today announced that, following a thorough legal review of the case, he will commute the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz to life imprisonment without parole. Teleguz’s request for a pardon will be denied. Teleguz was convicted in the murder-for-hire of Stephanie Yvonne Sipe in July 2001. He was scheduled to be executed on April 25.
Announcing his decision at the Virginia State Capitol today, Governor McAuliffe delivered the following statement (as prepared):
Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us. I am joined today by my Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran, and my Counsel, Carlos Hopkins, both of whom have devoted countless hours to leading the review of the case of Ivan Teleguz. His petition is a request for a pardon or a commutation of his death sentence.
The Virginia Constitution vests in the Governor the power of clemency. It is an essential part of our system of checks and balances, giving the Executive the power to grant clemency, with broad and absolute discretion to ensure justice. The consideration of petitions for pardons and commutations is a solemn responsibility which I take very seriously.
I have reviewed the petition and supporting materials submitted both from Mr. Teleguz’s attorney and the Commonwealth’s Attorney who prosecuted this case. My office has spoken to the attorneys on both sides. We have reviewed the letters submitted from Stephanie Sipe’s family, as well as letters supporting clemency for Mr. Teleguz.
As a result of this thorough review, I have decided to deny Mr. Teleguz’s petition for a pardon. However, I am commuting his capital sentence to life imprisonment.
On July 21, 2001, Stephanie Sipe, a 20-year-old mother of a young child, was viciously murdered. After the case went cold for years, evidence implicated Michael Hetrick as the person who committed the heinous crime, and he, along with two others, implicated Mr. Teleguz as having paid for the murder of Stephanie Sipe.
DNA evidence linked Mr. Hetrick to the crime, and he made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Mr. Teleguz in exchange for an agreement not to seek the death penalty. Mr. Hetrick will be spending the rest of his life in prison for this crime; however, Mr. Teleguz was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Ivan Teleguz’s petition for clemency came to me after exhaustive appeals and litigation of the case. Numerous state and federal judges have weighed the case and refused to grant relief to Mr. Teleguz.
My decision to deny Mr. Teleguz’s petition for pardon is based on my belief that the reliable evidence continues to support his conviction.
What has come to light, however, in my review of the circumstances regarding his death sentence, is that the sentencing phase of Mr. Teleguz’s trial was flawed.
As the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth, I have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the public and to carry out the sentences imposed through our laws and judicial process. Inherent in that job, however, is to intervene when carrying out such a sentence would shake public confidence in our system of justice.
Several factors weigh in favor of intervening in this case.
First, during the trial, evidence was admitted implicating Mr. Teleguz in another murder in a small Pennsylvania town. In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor made explicit reference to this evidence in arguing that Mr. Teleguz was so dangerous that he needed to be put to death.
We now know that no such murder occurred, much less with any involvement by Mr. Teleguz. It was false information, plain and simple, and while I am sure that the evidence was admitted in a good-faith belief in its truthfulness at the time, we now know that to be incorrect.
Second, references were made throughout the trial, as hearsay evidence, that Mr. Teleguz was a member of the Russian mafia. No evidence was introduced to support that, yet the specter was raised in his trial.
Third, there is evidence that these factors did, in fact, influence the jury in the sentencing phase of the trial. During deliberations, jurors asked the judge whether Mr. Teleguz had access to their personal information and addresses, suggesting the jury was concerned that Mr. Teleguz would be a danger to the jury members if he were allowed to live. The judge responded that Mr. Teleguz did in fact have access to that information. Subsequent evidence confirms that this fear impacted the jury’s decision to impose a death sentence.
I am also mindful of the appearance of disproportionate sentences in this case. Michael Hetrick is the person who walked into Stephanie Sipe’s home and brutally attacked and murdered her. To save his own life, he negotiated a deal to serve life in prison and avoid the death penalty. There is no question that he is every bit as responsible for Stephanie’s murder as Ivan Teleguz.
American values demand that every person, no matter their crime, be given due process of law. In this case, we now know that the jury acted on false information, and that it was driven by passions and fears raised – not from actual evidence introduced at trial – but from inference. To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds dear.
Whether or not to allow an execution to proceed is the most serious decision a Governor can make. It is the Governor’s responsibility to uphold the law impartially. And a key part of upholding our laws is protecting public confidence in our system. In this case, I believe substantial enough doubt exists with respect to this sentence that I am required to intervene and commute it to life in prison.
My heart aches for the family of Stephanie Sipe, especially her son who has had to grow up without either of his parents. I know this decision will be a difficult one for all of them.
But the Constitution of Virginia and our sacred values of due process under law require me to act. Because the sentencing phase of Mr. Teleguz’s trial was flawed, I must commute Mr. Teleguz’s capital sentence to life in prison without parole.