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January 18, 2012

Delaware Governor commutes death sentence based principally on childhood abuse

As reported in this local article, "Delaware Gov. Jack Markell on Tuesday spared the life of condemned killer Robert A. Gattis, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection early Friday morning." Here are the details explaining why this clemency decision is both historic and intriguing:

It is the first time in modern memory, and perhaps the first time ever, that a Delaware governor has commuted a death sentence to life in prison.

Markell's action means the execution is canceled and the 49-year-old Gattis, who was convicted and sentenced to die for the May 1990 murder of his onetime girlfriend Shirley Y. Slay, will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Markell cited the "unusual and perhaps historic" recommendation of the Delaware Board of Pardons, in a 4-1 vote Sunday, to offer Gattis mercy. "I realize my decision may cause pain to the family and friends of Shirley Slay. For that, I deeply apologize," Markell said in a statement.

The Slay family said they were disappointed by the outcome but accepted it. "We are going to look at it as the way God wanted it to be," said Slay's mother, who also is named Shirley.

She said Markell met with members of the family personally before he made his decision public Tuesday, and they appreciated the chance to share their side of the story with Markell and explain their feelings and concerns.

Markell put conditions on his offer of commutation, stating Gattis must agree to surrender all future legal appeals and to spend the rest of his natural life in the Maximum Security Unit of Vaughn Correctional Center.

To that end, according to Markell's office, a hearing is expected to be held today in New Castle County Superior Court, where Gattis will formally waive his appellate rights before a Superior Court judge and agree to the conditions set by Markell.

Attorneys representing Gattis said at last week's clemency hearing and repeated again Tuesday that they see no problem with Gattis' accepting those terms. Attorney Karl Schwartz, with the Federal Defender's Office, said Gattis recognizes that he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for what he did.

Off the top of my head, I cannot recall another similar commutation which depended upon a defendant giving up all his legal appeals.  But such a condition on clemency seems an astute and reasonable way to give a different sort of closure to the victim's family in conjunction with a decision to take a killer off death row.

This link to the full statement of the Delaware Board of Pardons discussing its recommendation makes for an interesting read, and here is the heart of the justification given by the Board for its clemency recommendation:

In considering the full record, we accept that if even half of what has been submitted about Mr. Gattis's childhood is true, he was victimized physically, emotionally, and sexually by family members who owed him a duty of care.  There is evidence in the record that Mr. Gattis complained to medical professionals of mental illness and involuntary violent impulses over a year before Ms. 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.

January 18, 2012 at 09:29 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"seems an astute and reasonable way to give a different sort of closure to the victim's family in conjunction with a decision to take a killer off death row."

Prof. Berman;

Are you indicating a current state of a lack of closure in this case? Is that not due to the failure to execute the killer?

This would not comport with the "decision" to take Gattis off death row, but it would be meet with the decision of the jury, the will of the people of the state—most likely—and would not force the deflated family of the victim to "see it as the way God wanted it to be."

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 18, 2012 9:50:04 AM

How do we know the "will of the people of the state" regarding a specific criminal case? And, what about the many family members who do not find executions are required for closure, in fact oppose them? Many think "God wanted it to be" otherwise. As to taking away all appeals, that seems questionable in absolute terms. Some scenario can be imagined where an appeal should be left open at least in extreme circumstances.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 18, 2012 10:12:59 AM

Adamakis: My point is only that if/when state officials decide to commute a death sentence (especially on the eve of a scheduled execution), making the dropping of all appeals a condition of that commutation should generally help the family avoid having to read about (or attend) future court hearings concerning the defendant and also eliminate any significant concern that the defendant will be somehow freed by the courts. Whether this really helps with "closure" (whatever that really means) or if instead an execution would better achieve these ends in this case or others is difficult for me to say from afar. My goal was merely to suggest that the appeal waiver condition might be a reasonable way to give the victim's family some comfort once they learn that the killer is not to be executed.

Posted by: Doug B.. | Jan 18, 2012 10:19:43 AM

Joe,

I'm generally uncomfortable with appellate waivers in many circumstances, but given that he was on the eve of execution, his sentence and underlying conviction have already been reviewed several times, and I think such a waiver is completely reasonable in this scenario. (A different circumstance would arise if you were actually innocent and had to trade a commutation to LWOP for any chance of proving your innocence. . . but that definitely doesn't seem to be an issue here, as it wouldn't in most cases in this posture -- one hopes!)

Posted by: Anon | Jan 18, 2012 10:33:29 AM

Another weak-kneed Democrat. Why am I not surprised?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 18, 2012 10:52:42 AM

Doug B.,

I understand. I just wish that the ACLU, Gov. Kitzhaber, judges, &tc. would allow those who accept their execution to use the appeal waiver condition, instead of contravening them.

Posted by: adamakis | Jan 18, 2012 11:00:54 AM

"the decision of the jury, the will of the people of the state—most likely"

"Most-likely" because I haven't seen a poll of Delaware.

I have seen that 150mi. away in Connecticut, with comprehensive news coverage of the Cheshire killings, by 76% to 18%, “voters favor the death penalty for the 2007 home invasion and murders.”

“Overall, the poll released Wednesday shows 65 to 23 percent support for the death penalty in general.“

The more people know about the particulars of a capital crime, the more they support the death penalty. ==read more: http://www.ctpost.com

Posted by: adamakis | Jan 18, 2012 11:33:59 AM

maybe so adamakis but if you are going to do something like this. This is a PERFECT example of a way to do it.

he did it in line with a recomendation by the parole board!

"Markell cited the "unusual and perhaps historic" recommendation of the Delaware Board of Pardons, in a 4-1 vote Sunday, to offer Gattis mercy."


he then talked to the family!

"She said Markell met with members of the family personally before he made his decision public Tuesday, and they appreciated the chance to share their side of the story with Markell and explain their feelings and concerns."

and to TOP it all off he made sure the guy will NEVER get out absent a complete closure of the prison sytem in the state via any further court appearances!

"Markell put conditions on his offer of commutation, stating Gattis must agree to surrender all future legal appeals and to spend the rest of his natural life in the Maximum Security Unit of Vaughn Correctional Center.

To that end, according to Markell's office, a hearing is expected to be held today in New Castle County Superior Court, where Gattis will formally waive his appellate rights before a Superior Court judge and agree to the conditions set by Markell"

so i think those of you talking down to the governor in this case...NEED TO GET A LIFE!

this is the way we NEED these to happen!

"

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 18, 2012 1:26:59 PM

federalist --

"Another weak-kneed Democrat. Why am I not surprised?"

I doubt he's weak-kneed. I think this is what he wanted all along, but was hoping that some appellate court would bail him out before now. When that didn't work out, he has to show his true colors.

There are lots of people out there -- I've debated some of them -- who SAY they support the DP, but they never seem to want any particular person, no matter how obviously guilty, to be executed. I don't know what this Governor said about the DP before his election, but this story sounds like he's one of them.

One other point: The idea that the appeal waiver will ever actually be enforced is quaint. What exactly does this guy have to lose by filing the appeal (or a hundred appeals) that he agreed to forego?

Right. Nothing. What are courts going to do? Reschedule the execution?

When he feels like it, which I suspect will be next week, he'll start the next round of litigation, citing "extreme circumstances" (as mentioned above by Joe). Since "extreme circumstances" has no specific definition, and since, as noted, he has nothing to lose by trying, he'll just go on and on and on.

The idea that this commutation will bring "closure" is a fraud, and the Governor almost surely knows it's a fraud. The problem is not that he lacks knowledge or spine. The problem is he doesn't care.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 18, 2012 1:36:44 PM

By the way, the direct victim of Gattis was named Shirley Y. Slay, a temp secretary and mother of a 12 year old.

He did not show any *mercy* toward her for years, e.g.,

~~ "at an American Legion post, the scene of one of Gattis' jealous fits. He pistol-whipped a man for talking to Slay."
~~ "According to testimony and Gattis' own admission last week, Gattis beat Shirley Y. Slay, and when she tried to end
her relationship with him he stalked her."
~~ "sometimes family members would even stay with Shirley to keep Gattis away."
~~ "when Shirley told friends she was finally going to end it, Gattis refused to listen to a direct order from a police
officer to stay away, got a gun…and shot her between the eyes."

Shirley's daughter, Tykisha, died in a car wreck traveling to a family reunion in 2006, & her mother "has trouble believing" Gattis's belated apology, 21 years slow in the coming.

--- "…her mother's murder, always haunted Tykisha and affected her relationships with men."
--- "And until last week, he had never admitted that his actions in May 1990 were intentional or offered any sort of apology."

------"On some level, both Shirley (Shirley Y.'s mom) and Willie Slay say, it feels like Gattis "beat the system.""
http://www.delmarvanow.com/

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 18, 2012 2:40:35 PM

This Job One and Job Last of government, to protect the weak from the physically strong and aggressive. Total failure. The murderer should have been executed long before his 18th birthday under 123D, starting the count at age 14.

In Delaware, statute defines child abuse. These definitions include emtional abuse and emotional neglect, both reportable by madnated reporters to child welfare authorities. Who are the mandated reporters of Delaware, everyone, not just professionals. What is emotional abuse? Any derogatory statement made to the child. So, you hear in the aisle of a store, stop acting like a fool, you are embarrassing me. You must report that emtional abuse to the police or to a child line.

OK. You do not want to be reported for emotional abuse. So, you ignore the horrid behavior, in silence. Ignoring is emotional neglect, also to be reported by all citizens seeing it, or facing a $10,000 fine for a first offense of failure to report and a $50,000 fine and jail time for a second offense of failure to report.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 18, 2012 7:09:55 PM

hmm

"One other point: The idea that the appeal waiver will ever actually be enforced is quaint. What exactly does this guy have to lose by filing the appeal (or a hundred appeals) that he agreed to forego?

Right. Nothing. What are courts going to do? Reschedule the execution?"

I would! heck i would also have added one extra condition to the agreement.

"failure to follow this agreement will result in IMMEIATE EXECUTION of the previous sentence!"

then shot his ass within 24hrs of any court paper filed by him that had anything to do with any appeal of his sentece hit the court!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 18, 2012 7:54:21 PM

It seems Ms. Slay was victimized emotionally and physically. The more I read about Gattis, I can't help wonder what the 4 members of the Parole Board were thinking. Gattis waited until his appeals were exhausted and then presents all this abuse history. The torture Ms.Slay received took a back seat. Her and her family deserved more.

Also, the comments made by the Board lead me to believe that they are second guessing Delaware's death penalty statute regarding unanimous jury sentencing verdicts. They also performed a proportionality review comparing Gattis' crime with others committing similar crimes. The bottom line is that several members just don't like the death penalty.

Posted by: DaveP | Jan 18, 2012 8:36:58 PM

I heartily agree DaveP. This was a travesty of justice.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 19, 2012 3:24:41 PM

I saw some pictures of Ms. Slay. She seemed like a happy person. I wonder how she connected with a loser like Gattis who harrassed her and ended her young life.

Posted by: DaveP | Jan 19, 2012 6:01:15 PM

federalist

I don't know if you noticed that SCOTUS denied certiorari on Nunley vs. Missouri this week. Maybe the state can get Judge Gaitan to vacate the stay he imposed and get this carried out.

Posted by: DaveP | Jan 19, 2012 6:06:37 PM

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