Apparent 1st for Del. as gov. spares killer's life

January 17, 2012 - 8:35 PM
Delaware Killer Clemency

This undated photo provided Jan. 4, 2012 by the Delaware Department of Correction in Smyrna, Del., shows 49-year-old Robert Gattis. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has decided to accept a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons that he commute Gattis' death sentence to life in prison without parole. Gattis was scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday for killing Shirley Slay in 1990. (AP Photo/Delaware Department of Correction)

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Gov. Jack Markell, in an apparent first for Delaware, has spared the life of a man whose execution had been scheduled later this week for the shooting death of his former girlfriend.

Until the governor intervened, inmate Robert Gattis, 49, had been scheduled to die by injection Friday for the killing of Shirley Slay, 27.

The Democratic governor on Tuesday accepted a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons to commute Gattis' 1992 death sentence to life in prison without parole. The board considered disturbing accounts of physical and sexual abuse that Gattis claims to have suffered as a child and which his attorneys argued the courts had never properly weighed.

Markell said he gave great weight to a 4-1 recommendation of the pardons board. Yet Delaware's governor said granting clemency was one of the most difficult decisions he has made as a public official.

"I have spent substantial time considering the harm endured by Ms. Slay and her family, Mr. Gattis' history, and the merits of the clemency application. I have prayed," Markell said.

He added: "At the end of the day, although I am not free from doubt, I believe moving forward with the execution of Mr. Gattis is not appropriate."

The governor met with members of Slay's family before announcing his decision. The victim's parents did not immediately return a telephone message left at their Georgia home seeking comment.

Markell spokesman Cathy Rossi said administration officials are unaware of any previous case in which a governor received or approved a pardons board recommendation for commutation of a death sentence. Prosecutors have said Gattis shot Slay in a jealous rage after years of physically abusing her. His attorneys argued at trial that the death was an accident.

Under Delaware law, a governor cannot grant commutation unless a majority of the five-member pardons board recommends that step.

Markell has supported the imposition of the death penalty in the past. As state treasurer, he had previously sat on pardons boards that rejected clemency requests for condemned killers Tanzil Hameen in 2001 and Brian Steckel in 2005. Both were executed.