Delaware Board of Pardons votes 4-1 in favor of condemned killer’s clemency request

Just days before his scheduled execution, a man convicted of murdering his former girlfriend more than two decades ago gets a favorable decision from the Delaware Board of Pardons.

The panel voted 4-1 to recommend that Governor Jack Markell commute the death sentence of Robert Gattis, provided that Gattis agrees to spend the rest of his life in prison with no further appeals for relief. 

Gattis appeared before the Board of Pardons January 9th at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, where he pleaded for the board to spare his life. Relatives of his victim, Shirley Slay, have expressed doubt about Gattis’ claims of remorse. Gattis claimed at his trial, and until recently, that Slay’s shooting death was an accident.

In a statement Sunday, the Board of Pardons acknowledged that his previous legal team presented no evidence about the physical and sexual abuse Gattis endured as a child. In fact, Gattis told none of his lawyers about that history until 2009. 

“In considering the full record, we accept that if even half of what has been submitted about Mr. Gattis’s childhood is true, he was victimized physically, emotionally, and sexually by family members who owed him a duty of care,” the board’s statement said.  “There is evidence in the record that Mr. Gattis complained to medical professionals of mental illness and involuntary violent impulses over a year before Ms. Slay’s murder.  Although Mr. Gattis knew right from wrong and was guilty of first degree murder, we, in the exercise of conscience required of us as members of this Board, believe that these are sufficiently mitigating facts to warrant consideration for clemency.” 

The panel also considered that two jurors in the original case did not vote in favor of the death penalty, and some members have concern about the “disparity in the sentences” that are handed down in murder cases.

The Board of Pardons is chaired by Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn.  Its members are Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, Chancellor of the Court of Chancery Leo Strine, State Auditor Tom Wagner, and State Treasurer Chip Flowers.

Governor Markell has until early Friday morning to decide whether to spare Gattis’ life or have the execution proceed. Gattis is scheduled to receive a lethal injection between 12:01 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. 

Gattis’ current lawyers John Deckers and Karl Schwartz said they were “extremely gratified” that the Board of Pardons recommended commutation of Gattis’ death sentence.  “We respectfully urge the Governor to follow the Board’s recommendation which is now joined with the many prominent voices including, legislators, former judges and prosecutors, domestic violence organizations, clergy, mental health professionals, members of the bar and concerned citizens, all of whom have called on the Governor to show mercy and spare Mr. Gattis’ life,” Schwartz and Deckers said in a statement. 

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