Delaware Governor commutes death sentence

Robert Gattis will not be executed by the state of Delaware following Governor Jack Markell’s decision to commute his sentence from death to life in prison.

Governor Markell issued a statement just before noon announcing his decision.  “I undertake this commutation after thorough review of the record presented and substantial contemplation,” Markell said.  “I find myself in agreement with the four members of the Board of Pardons who concluded the mitigating evidence here is sufficiently substantial that an act of clemency on my part is warranted.”

Markell says the decision “is among the most difficult I have had to make in all my years in public service.”  Gattis was convicted of murdering his former girlfriend, Shirley Slay more than two decades ago.  Markell says, “I realize my decision may cause pain to the family and friends of Shirley Slay.  For that, I deeply apologize.”  You can read Governor Markell’s statement in full here.

Gattis’ attorney Karl Schwartz says after a traumatic childhood of abuse and neglect, this may be the first blessing that the convicted killer has received in his whole life.  “It’s wonderful that both the board of pardons and the Governor were willing to really consider his life and his background, the tragedy of his background, and take a very courageous step.  It’s very much appreciated.”  Schwartz says members of his legal team will deliver the news to Gattis this afternoon.

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The decision is welcome news to death penalty opponents like attorney Kevin O’Connell, who at one time represented Gattis in court as a public defender.  “For Robert, I know from speaking with him that he had prepared himself for what may have happened on January 20th, but was hoping for the best.  I’m sure he’s gratified as well for the mercy that’s been shown him.”

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden maintains that there were no court errors in the Gattis case.  “Shirley Slay was a wholly innocent victim who, until her brutal and premeditated murder, did everything possible to protect herself from the years of abuse by Robert Gattis,” Biden said in a statement.  “We respect that this was a weighty decision for the Governor after much review and deliberation.”  He added, “Over the past twenty years state and federal courts on sixteen separate occasions unanimously determined there was no legal, factual, or procedural error in this case.  Each reviewing court has upheld Robert Gattis’ conviction and death sentence.”

Sally Milbury-Steen of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty has been fighting against capital punishment for years.  “I am very happy that the family of Robert Gattis doesn’t have to go through the loss of him, and that he can be a productive person from behind bars.”  She says, “It’s a great day for those of who have worked to make sure that the mechanism of mercy functions.  Prior to this no one had ever had a death penalty commuted in Delaware.”  

Death penalty opponents plans a pair of celebratory rallies on Thursday, one in Dover from 2 to 3 p.m. at Legislative Hall, the other in Wilmington’s Rodney Square from 3 to 5 p.m.  The gatherings are designed to express gratitude to the Governor and the members of the Board of Pardons, including Lt. Governor Matt Denn, Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, Chancellor of Court of Chancery Leo Strine, State Treasurer Chip Flowers, and State Auditor Tom Wagner.

The Board of Pardons announced their 4-1 vote in favor of clemency over the weekend.  In a statement, they explained that their decision was based on abuse Gattis endured as a child.  “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.”

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