RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A man sentenced to death in a 2006 murder-for-hire case won a reprieve Thursday when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe commuted his sentence to life without parole, citing concerns about false information that he believes influenced the jury’s sentencing decision.
Ivan Teleguz was scheduled to be executed Tuesday, but McAuliffe commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It’s the first execution that the Democratic governor has stopped since taking office. McAuliffe is a Catholic who has said he’s personally opposed to capital punishment, but will uphold the law as governor.
Teleguz was convicted in 2006 of hiring a man to kill 20-year-old Stephanie Sipe, the mother of his child. Sipe was stabbed to death in her Harrisonburg apartment. Sipe’s mother found her body two days later, along with their 2-year-old son, who was unharmed.
McAuliffe said he believes Teleguz is guilty, even though two witnesses recanted their testimony implicating him in the crime.
But McAuliffe said he would spare Teleguz’s life because part of his trial “terribly flawed.” The jury was told that the man was involved in another murder in Pennsylvania, which never happened, McAuliffe said. It was also suggested that Teleguz was involved with the “Russian mafia,” but there’s no evidence to support that, McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe said he thinks that made jurors fear for their safety, noting that they asked the judge whether Teleguz could access their personal information and addresses.
“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,” McAuliffe said.
Teleguz’s attorneys said the man is grateful to those who supported his clemency effort and said he will continue to fight to clear his name.
“He asks for their continued support as he works now to fully prove that he is not responsible for Stephanie’s death,” attorneys Elizabeth Peiffer and Michael Williams said.
Marsha Garst, the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.
The governor had faced mounting pressure to intervene after the newspaper in Virginia’s capital city, former Virginia attorneys general and death penalty opponents raised concerns about executing a possibly innocent man.
Since Teleguz went to death row, two men who implicated him have said they lied under pressure from investigators they claim were fixated on putting Teleguz away.
Kevin Whitfield, the lead police investigator in the case, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he has never wavered from his belief that Teleguz is guilty.
“I do not have any doubt,” Whitfield said. “I feel as convinced as today as I did back then.”
Sipe’s sister has also said her family still believes Teleguz is responsible.
After the two prosecution witnesses recanted their trial testimony in written affidavits, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a judge to conduct a hearing on Teleguz’s innocence claim.