Blog of Rights

Delaware Gov. Commutes Deeply Contested Death Sentence

By Kathleen MacRae, ACLU of Delaware at 1:00pm

Delaware Governor Jack Markell made history today when he announced that he would commute the death sentence of Robert Gattis to life in prison. Two days ago, the Delaware Board of Pardons for the first time in its history recommended that the death sentence be commuted. Gov. Markell cited that “unusual and perhaps historic” recommendation when he made the announcement.

Robert Gattis was convicted and sentenced to die in 1992 for the murder of his girlfriend Shirley Slay, and was scheduled to die by lethal injection later this week. Serious questions had been raised about the severity of the sentence, and a number of issues led opponents of the death penalty and others — the Delaware News Journal editorialized in favor of clemency for the first time in its history — to call on the governor to commute Mr. Gattis’ sentence.

They are some of the same issues that come up all over the country when problems with the death penalty system are analyzed and debated:

  • The evidence of the horrible physical and sexual abuse that Mr. Gattis suffered from the time he was a small child was never consider by a jury or the sentencing judge, as it would be if the case were tried today. By the time appellate attorneys discovered this evidence and tried to introduce it, the judicial process was too far advanced andprocedural obstacles were too high to surmount.
  • Gattis was not the “worst of the worst” and his sentence was unduly harsh. There were at least sixteen Delaware murder cases with similar, or more egregious, facts that resulted in life in prison without parole or a lesser sentence. Of these 16 cases, five where death penalty cases, at the end of which the jury and/or the judge decided that death was not an appropriate punishment.
  • The jury verdict in the Gattis case was not unanimous. Back in 1991, the state legislature changed the system to allow the judge to make the final decision on death with a less-than-unanimous jury vote — a system that is only followed by Delaware, Florida and Alabama.

Clemency is an intricate and necessary part of a fair and impartial system of justice and the Gattis case is a perfect example of why. We applaud Gov. Markell for making this important decision.

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