WILMINGTON, Del. — A killer who had faced execution this week told a judge Wednesday that he agrees to spend the rest of his life in prison and to drop all further legal challenges regarding his murder conviction in return for having his death sentence commuted.
Robert Gattis, 49, repeatedly answered “yes” when Judge James Vaughn Jr. asked him if he understood and accepted the conditions that Gov. Jack Markell and the state Board of Pardons imposed in return for changing his sentence to life without parole for murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1990.
At the conclusion of a 15-minute hearing, Vaughn said he was satisfied that Gattis had knowingly, willingly and voluntarily agreed to the terms of the commutation for killing 27-year-old Shirley Slay.
“It’s done. Nothing else to say,” said Slay’s mother, also named Shirley, as she left the courtroom. “We just want to get a peace of mind at this point,” she added.
Gattis had been scheduled to die Friday. Prosecutors have said he shot Slay between the eyes “execution style” in a jealous rage after years of abusing her, but his defense attorneys argued at trial that her death was an accident.
Gattis had exhausted his state and federal court appeals. But his lawyers told the pardons board last week that commutation was appropriate because the courts never considered the sexual abuse Gattis now says he suffered as a child nor had a full appreciation of his beatings and physical abuse.
Markell, in what appears to be a first for the state, said Tuesday that he would follow the pardons board’s recommendation to spare Gattis’ life.
In return, Gattis had to agree to forgo any further legal challenge to his conviction and sentence, waive the right to any further request for pardon or commutation, and agree to spend the rest of his life in the maximum security unit of the state prison in Smyrna.
Gattis’ mother, Barbara Lewis, said she was grateful to God for her son’s life being spared.
“Hearts are his to work with, and it is my prayer that the Slays will find peace and true forgiveness, because we are truly sorry that they endured this tragedy and loss,” said Lewis. She added she hoped to one day sit down with Shirley Slay “mother to mother.”
Federal public defender Karl Schwartz said Gattis had been ready to face his execution and was “incredibly relieved” by the commutation.
“He does not take lightly the significance of what the governor and the board did,” Schwartz said, adding that the commutation has strengthened Gattis’ resolve to do right and be a better person.
“It’s clear that he’s been given an extraordinary opportunity,” Schwartz said.