Story highlights

Robert Gattis was to be put to death Friday for the 1990 murder of Shirley Slay

The Delaware Board of Pardons in a 4-1 vote, recommended a reduced sentence

It found merit to Gattis' claims of mistreatment suffered as a child

CNN —  

Delaware’s governor commuted the death sentence Tuesday of a convicted murderer who was set to be executed later this week.

Gov. Jack Markell granted clemency to Robert Gattis, convicted of the 1990 murder of his former girlfriend. He will now spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The decision comes after the Delaware Board of Pardons voted 4-1 to recommend a reduction in the sentence.

The Democratic governor noted the “unusual and perhaps historic” vote when announcing his commutation. “I realize my decision may cause pain to the family and friends of Shirley Slay. For that I deeply apologize.”

Markell said he prayed and met with Slay’s family before making his decision. He concluded that “moving forward with the execution of Mr. Gattis is not appropriate.” But the commutation “in no way relieves Mr. Gattis of his moral or legal guilt.”

Gattis, 49, appeared in person at the clemency hearing last week in Dover, saying he is a changed man, and begging for mercy. “I am not the Robert Gattis who killed Shirley Slay, that’s not who I am,” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

The Board of Pardons said there was merit to Gattis’ claims of mistreatment suffered as a child. “We accept that if even half of what has been submitted about Mr. Gattis’ childhood is true, he was victimized physically, emotionally, and sexually by family members who owed him a duty of care,” said the state panel.

Gattis’ lawyers expressed relief at the commutation. “We are humbled by Gov. Markell’s morally courageous decision,” said attorney John Deckers. “To our knowledge, no prior Delaware governor has ever commuted a death sentence.”

Delaware has executed 15 people since capital punishment was resumed in the United States in 1976. Nineteen male inmates now remain on the state’s death row. It is one of the few states that still allows hanging as a choice of execution for those whose offenses occurred before 1986, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Lethal injection is the usual method. The last execution in Delaware was July 29.

Gattis had claimed for years the death was an accident, and only recently accepted responsibility for his actions.

His Friday execution date was canceled and he will soon be moved off death row. He had previously exhausted his legal appeals.

Markell’s commutation was conditioned on Gattis dropping all legal challenges and fully accepting his life sentence, without the possibility of parole. Gattis’ lawyers had indicated he would do so.

Death penalty opponents lauded the governor’s intervention.

“Gattis’ crime, while senseless and horrible, was by all accounts a crime of passion, committed in a jealous rage,” said Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project. “A lifetime in prison is sufficient to pay for this crime; the death penalty is simply not appropriate.”