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Delaware gov. spares convicted murderer facing execution

DOVER, Del. — Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has decided to spare the life of a man who was facing execution this week for the 1990 murder of his former girlfriend.

Robert Gattis was scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday for killing Shirley Slay, 27.

Robert Gattis

But Markell said Tuesday that he has decided to accept a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons that he commute Gattis’ 1992 death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Markell said the decision to grant clemency to Gattis is among the most difficult he has made as a public official, and that he realizes it may cause pain to Slay’s family.

But the governor also said he gives great weight to the decision by the pardons board, which reviewed Gattis’ case thoroughly and voted 4 to 1 for commutation after considering disturbing accounts of physical and sexual abuse that Gattis claims to have suffered as a child and which his attorneys argued have never been properly considered by the courts.

“I undertake this commutation after thorough review of the record presented and substantial contemplation,” Markell said in a statement drafted for release Tuesday. “I have read Mr. Gattis’s application for clemency, the state’s response, and Mr. Gattis’s reply. I have reviewed the many affidavits submitted. I have spent substantial time considering the harm endured by Ms. Slay and her family, Mr. Gattis’s history, and the merits of the clemency application. I have prayed.”

“At the end of the day, although I am not free from doubt, I believe moving forward with the execution of Mr. Gattis is not appropriate under the totality of the circumstances,” concluded Markell, who met with members of Slay’s family before announcing his decision.

Markell agreed with the pardons board that in return for having his sentence commuted, Gattis must agree to forgo any further legal challenge to his conviction and sentence and to waive the right to any further request for pardon or commutation.

Prosecutors have said Gattis shot Slay “execution style” in a jealous rage, but his defense attorneys argued at trial that Slay’s death was an accident.

Gattis has exhausted state and federal court appeals, but his lawyers told the pardons board that commutation was appropriate because the courts never considered the sexual abuse Gattis now says he suffered as a child, and that the courts did not have a full appreciation of the physical abuse he suffered.

‘That’s not who I am’

Gattis admitted at last week’s Board of Pardons hearing that Slay’s death was not an accident, but he pleaded with board members to spare his life.

“I am not the Robert Gattis who killed Shirley Slay, that’s not who I am,” said Gattis, 49, insisting he’s a changed man.

Board members acknowledged that prosecutors were correct to harbor suspicions about some of the testimony regarding Gattis’s background and to question why he did not come forward with the full extent of his sexual abuse until 2009. They also noted that Gattis had maintained for years that Slay’s death was an accident, and that he did not take responsibility for intentionally killing her until earlier this month.

But after reviewing all the evidence and testimony it was presented, the board concluded that the Gattis was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by family members as a child, and that he had complained to medical professionals of mental illness and involuntary violent impulses more than a year before 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 board said Sunday in announcing its decision.

One comment

  1. originally sent 1/16/12

    Please forward to the family of Shirley Slay

    To media througout Delaware and

    To: Governor Jack Markell and staff
    The Delaware Board of Pardons and staffs
    Attorney General Beau Biden and staff

    From Dudley Sharp, contact info below

    Re: The Delaware Board of Pardons Forgot Justice:
    Commutation vote for Robert Gattis’ death sentence for the murder of Shirley Slay

    Dear Governor and Attorney General:

    Please consider.

    The Boards majority recommendation, to commute Gattis’ death sentence to life, conflicts with justice.

    The Board seems to have forgotten that sanction is not provided as a matter of self defense, but as a matter of justice.

    It is immoral to consider “self defense” as the standard for sanction because it is a utilitarian concern, which does not take into account the primary purpose of sanction, which is that sanctions be earned by the criminal and be given by the fact finders, based upon the nature of the crime.

    How unjust would it be if we gave sanction based upon self defense, when the criminal did not, in fact, deserve it?

    The death penalty is, in addition, a greater measure of self defense, as living murderers do harm and murder, again, in prison, after escape and after improper release. Executed murderers do not.

    The death penalty is founded in justice, based upon the sanction being deserved and, secondarily, it is a greater protector of innocent lives.

    Any commutation of sentence in this case will just be a clear example that Gattis can be released at any time by any future governor who may find it appropriate, no matter what agreements are made, today — agreements which are, legally irrelevant, in any future executive clemency considerations. All bets are off, with any future governor., not matter what any agreement says, today. End of story.

    The Slay family should not be comforted by Gattis “never getting out”. It is a promise that no one can, honestly, make.

    Board members Strine and Bullock noted that other such murderers are subject to release, as if Gattis had the wrong sanction, when they can’t make that case. No worries, gentlemen, Gattis will always be subject to release, if his death sentence is commuted.

    As is clear, any alleged positive changes in Gattis are based upon him being sentenced to death. The only reason he has, now, finally stopped lying, about the “accidental” shooting, is because he is facing execution.

    Put another way, it was only because Gattis was given the death sentence that we see any alleged benefits in Gattis, today.

    Does anyone doubt that Gattis would still be lying about the “accidental” murder, had he been given a life sentence, as the Board, now, proposes?

    Everyone knows Gattis is only telling the truth to avoid a death sentence.

    In other words, this has nothing to do with a changed man, but is only about self preservation by a premeditated murderer.

    It is most likely that he is lying about the additional sexual, abuse, only because, again, he is facing the death penalty and wants commutation.

    Sexual abuse was part of his original trial mitigating factors. He waited 19 years to bring up the alleged additional evidence of sexual abuse, which if true, he would have brought up at trial, 19 years ago. He didn’t.

    Would Gattis lie to avoid a death sentence?

    Do both lying to avoid the death penalty and telling the truth to avoid the death penalty tell us anything about Gattis being a changed man? Of course it does. It tells us that a self serving murdered can get what they want with the Delaware Board of Pardons (1/18/12 and, now the Gov, who granted it)

    The Board missed the boat on disparate sentencing.

    The disparity is not that Gattis received the death penalty for his crimes, but that other similar crimes did not. 99.9% of the victims of sexual abuse do not commit capital murder.

    If sentencing disparities are so important to the Board, why didn’t they take into consideration that most murderers get less than life and some get no prison time, all of which they could have considered?

    It is an insult to all victims that sentencing disparities should be used as a reason to mitigate this sentence, when the board has no way of knowing if any of the (19 years in hiding) claims of sexual abuse are true.

    If sentencing disparities are to be used in the context of victims, it should be used as a barometer to increase sentences, not to reduce them.

    Although the Board cannot increase sentences, it seems they only viewed disparities in the light to benefit criminals, not victims. Unfortunate.

    It is no mystery that any murderer who would wait 22 years to tell the truth to avoid execution would also wait 19 years to lie to avoid execution.

    An additional commutation excuse, without reasoning, is the fact that the Board considered it important that the jury was not unanimous in their recommendation of death for Gattis.

    2 jurors, or 17%, voted for life.

    Why would the Board only show their majority support for 17%, but trash the other 10 jurors, or 83%, who found death more just?

    It is the same as saying, that the Governor should only pay attention to the 1 board member (20%) who voted to uphold the death sentence, but trash the 4 (80%) who voted for commutation.

    As ridiculous as that sounds, that is, precisely, what we are all being asked to swallow.

    Remember innocent abuse and murder victim Shirley Slay and remember the importance of justice. Both have gotten less than their fair share of attention.

    Sincerely, Dudley Sharp
    e-mail, 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas

    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally