RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s Democratic governor is facing mounting pressure to halt next week’s scheduled execution of an inmate whose case has seen two witnesses recant, years after he was convicted of ordering his ex-girlfriend’s killing.
Ivan Teleguz, 38, is scheduled to receive a lethal injection April 25 unless he’s granted clemency by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. A Catholic, McAuliffe has said he personally opposes capital punishment but will uphold the law as governor. He hasn’t stopped an execution during his tenure.
Since Teleguz’s trial, two prosecution witnesses have recanted, prompting the traditionally conservative newspaper in Virginia’s capital city and death penalty foes, including British billionaire Richard Branson, to call on McAuliffe to spare the inmate.
“Executing a man who might be innocent would provide no benefit and only leave a terrible stain on Virginia and our justice system,” a group of conservatives — including Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center — said in a letter to McAuliffe.
The victim’s family and the case’s lead police investigator say they remain certain that Teleguz is guilty.
“I do not have any doubt,” former Harrisonburg Police investigator Kevin Whitfield said in an interview. “I feel as convinced today as I did back then.”
Teleguz was convicted in 2006 of hiring a man to kill 20-year-old Stephanie Sipe, his child’s mother. Sipe’s mom found her stabbed body in her Harrisonburg apartment, along with their unharmed 2-year-old son.
Teleguz, whose family left Ukraine when he was a child, was interviewed by police just after the 2001 killing. Sipe’s family told investigators that her relationship with Teleguz had soured and that he was mad over a court order to pay child support.
Teleguz wasn’t charged until years later, after a man arrested in another case told a U.S. marshal that Teleguz said he had hired someone from Pennsylvania to kill Sipe because he was upset about the payments.
Michael Hetrick said Teleguz hired him and Edwin Gilkes for $2,000 to kill Sipe. Gilkes, who was convicted of participating but said he wasn’t present for the killing, also testified against Teleguz.
Years later, Gilkes and the man who first implicated Teleguz — Aleksey Safanov — said in affidavits that they lied to secure a deal from prosecutors.
Lead prosecutor Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst declined to be interviewed.
After the witnesses recanted their testimony, an appeals court ordered a judge to hold a hearing to examine Teleguz’s innocence claim. His appeal was rejected after Gilkes refused to testify and Safanov — who’d been deported to Kyrgyzstan — didn’t show up. Hetrick again testified that he’d been hired by Teleguz to kill Sipe.
The judge said Teleguz has never presented a reasonable alternative for why Gilkes and Hetrick would drive from Pennsylvania to “a strange city in another state” to kill Sipe. He called it “simply farfetched” that Sipe’s death was a “drug robbery gone bad” or that Teleguz’s enemies would have Sipe killed to get him in trouble, as his supporters have suggested.
Teleguz’s attorneys and supporters say the only thing now linking him to the crime is Hetrick, who they say had an interest to lie because his life was at risk. Hetrick was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison in exchange for testifying against Teleguz.
“If they go through with this execution, there’s going to be more loss, and more pain and grieving,” said Steven Corbally, who worked as an investigator for Teleguz’s attorneys.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, in an editorial this month noting the questions surrounding the case, urged McAuliffe to commute Teleguz’s sentence to life without parole.
The Innocence Project and Branson, the Virgin Group founder, are among those who have taken to social media urging followers to call the governor’s office. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition supporting Teleguz’s clemency bid. Three former Virginia attorneys general — including one Republican — also have asked McAuliffe to intervene.
McAuliffe, the only person with the power to grant Teleguz clemency, told WVIR-TV this week that “clearly issues have come up” that he needs “to look at very closely.”
Virginia has executed two inmates since McAuliffe took office in 2014. The last execution was in January – of Ricky Gray, who killed a well-known Richmond family of four.
If Teleguz is executed, he’ll be given the sedative midazolam, followed by rocuronium bromide to halt breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart
Teleguz’s attorneys said they were preparing a filing with the U.S. Supreme Court on a technical issue, but no other appeals were planned. They say he remains hopeful his name will be cleared.
“Even to this day, he’s praying and has faith that things will turn out right because he believes so strongly,” attorney Elizabeth Peiffer said.
Sipe’s family feels just as strongly about Teleguz’s guilt.
“It blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life,” Jennifer Tilley, Sipe’s sister, told WHSV-TV. “(Sipe) didn’t have the opportunity to plead for her life.”
Sipe’s relatives couldn’t immediately be reached by The Associated Press.
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