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.
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.