RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday called off a man's execution in a 2006 murder-for-hire case, saying he had concerns about some of the evidence presented to jurors.
Ivan Teleguz was scheduled to be executed on Tuesday, but McAuliffe commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It's the first execution that the Democratic governor has stopped since taking office. McAuliffe is a Catholic who has said he's personally opposed to capital punishment, but will uphold the law as governor.
Teleguz was convicted in 2006 of hiring a man to kill 20-year-old Stephanie Sipe, the mother of his child. Sipe was stabbed to death in her Harrisonburg apartment. Sipe's mother found her body two days later, along with their 2-year-old son, who was unharmed.
The governor denied Teleguz's request to be declared innocent, and said he still believes Teleguz is guilty. But McAuliffe said he would spare Teleguz's life because of unsupported information provided to jurors that he believes impacted the jury's decision to sentence Teleguz to death. McAuliffe said the jury was told that Teleguz was involved in another murder in Pennsylvania and was part of the "Russian Mafia," but the governor said there is no evidence to support those claims.
McAuliffe had faced mounting pressure to intervene after religious leaders, death penalty opponents and the newspaper in Virginia's capital city raised concerns about executing a possibly innocent man.
Since Teleguz went to death row, two men who implicated him have said they lied under pressure from investigators they claim were fixated on putting Teleguz away.
Kevin Whitfield, the lead police investigator in the case, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he has never wavered from his belief that Teleguz is guilty. The man convicted of killing Sipe has never gone back on his testimony that Teleguz hired him to do it.
"I do not have any doubt," Whitfield said. "I feel as convinced as today as I did back then."
After the two prosecution witnesses recanted their trial testimony in written affidavits, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a judge to conduct a hearing on Teleguz's innocence claim.
But the judge rejected Teleguz's bid after one of the witnesses, Edwin Gilkes, refused to testify and another — who had been deported to Kyrgyzstan — didn't show up. Michael Hetrick, whose DNA was found at the scene, again testified that Teleguz hired him and Gilkes to kill Sipe.
Teleguz's attorneys note that Hetrick, who pleaded guilty and received a life sentence, was told he could be retried for capital murder if he testified differently than he did at trial. Gilkes, who was sentenced to 15 years for his role in the plot, was told he could be charged with first-degree murder.
Teleguz's attorneys and supporters say that to save his own life, Hetrick told investigators what they wanted to hear.
The judge who examined Teleguz's case said he has never presented a reasonable alternative for why Gilkes and Hetrick would drive "200 miles to a strange city in another state" to kill Sipe. He called it "simply farfetched" that Sipe's death was a "drug robbery gone bad" or that Teleguz's enemies would have had Sipe killed in order to get him in trouble, as his supporters have suggested.
Teleguz's family came to the U.S. when he was a child to escape religious persecution in Ukraine, when it was controlled by the Soviet Union. He's is deeply religious and spends most of his time in prison doing Bible studies, said his attorneys, who declined to make him available for an interview. Whitfield, the police investigator, said prison staff members tell him Teleguz is a "model prisoner."
McAuliffe has overseen two executions since he took office in 2014. Convicted serial killer Alfredo Prieto was given a lethal injection in October 2015. Ricky Gray, who killed a well-known Richmond family of four, was executed in January.
Eight death row prisoners in Virginia have been granted clemency since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The last Virginia governor to spare a condemned man was Gov. Tim Kaine, when he commuted convicted murder Percy Walton's sentence to life in prison in 2008.
The governor's decision in Teleguz's case comes as an aggressive effort in Arkansas to conduct that state's first executions since 2005 stalled for a second time this week when courts blocked lethal injections. Pharmaceuticals companies and other suppliers have objected to their drugs being used in executions and have been trying to stop states from getting supplies for lethal injections.