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Del. panel considers killer’s commutation request

SMYRNA, Del. — A condemned killer scheduled to be executed Jan. 20 asked the Delaware Board of Pardons on Monday to commute his sentence to life in prison.

The board met at the state’s maximum security prison in Smyrna to consider whether to recommend that Gov. Jack Markell grant a request for commutation from Robert Gattis, 49. He was sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of his ex-girlfriend, 27-year-old Shirley Slay, but his lawyers have filed a request for clemency in which they argued that the courts never properly considered the child abuse he had suffered as factors before sentencing.

Board members began deliberating Gattis’ fate after hearing arguments for and against commuting his death sentence.

Under state law, Markell cannot commute Gattis’ death sentence unless a majority of the five-member pardons board recommends that he do so.

Gattis has exhausted his state and federal court appeals, but his lawyers now argue that his sentence should be commuted because the courts never properly took into account the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child as factors against the death penalty.

In a clemency request filed with the Board of Pardons last week, defense attorneys recounted disturbing details of Gattis’ childhood, including repeated anal rape and other molestation by family members, sexual abuse by other boys in his neighborhood, and frequent beatings by his father and stepfather.

Lawyers who represented Gattis at his trial and on appeal immediately after his conviction have submitted affidavits acknowledging that they did not adequately raise those issues. His current lawyers say arguments about Gattis’ abusive childhood were then procedurally barred in later appeals because they had not been raised earlier in the case.

In addition to seeking commutation from Markell, lawyers for Gattis also were pursuing a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Superior Court judge last week refused a defense request to postpone the scheduled execution. The judge said he does not have the authority to grant a delay to accommodate the Supreme Court appeal, and he declined to grant a stay based on the Board of Pardons hearing.

Gattis told the pardon board on Monday, “I take responsibility. I was an abuser. I stalked Shirley and eventually I killed her … nothing I say or do can change that.” Gattis apologized to Slay’s family and to the board, but said he could not turn the clock back, and that he would like the opportunity to help others in prison. “I’m asking you, please, to just give me a little bit of consideration,” he said.

The pardons board chairman, Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, said the board would not make a recommendation to Markell on Monday, but would do so later this week in writing.

The most recent execution in Delaware was held in July, when convicted ax murderer Robert Jackson III, whose lawyers waged a lengthy fight over the constitutionality of the state’s use of lethal injection, was put to death. That was the state’s first execution since 2005.