RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — After an eleven-year legal battle, Governor Terry McAuliffe has decided to deny a pardon for Ivan Teleguz, but commute his death sentence to life in prison instead, without the chance for parole.
WHSV archive image of Ivan Teleguz walking from court in 2006
"Because the sentencing phase of Mr. Teleguz's trial was flawed, I must commute his capital sentence to life in prison without parole," said McAuliffe in an announcement at the Capitol on Thursday.
He spoke passionately about the justice system and how he believes Teleguz is guilty of the crime, but he says during the sentencing phase of this case, the jurors were given false information that Teleguz was involved with the Russian Mafia and with just one call, he could hurt the jurors. It was within hours of that statement that the jurors recommended the death sentence.
This is the first execution McAuliffe has stopped since taking office as governor.
"My heart aches for the family of Stephanie Sipe, but the Virginia constitution and our sacred values of due process under law require me to act," he added.
Teleguz was convicted in 2006 of hiring another man to kill his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Sipe, in Harrisonburg.
At the time, prosecutors argued that Teleguz ordered the killing of Sipe because he wanted to get out of paying child support. Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst prosecuted the case eleven years ago and made the argument on February 24 to schedule the execution of Ivan Teleguz for April 25.
On Thursday, after McAuliffe's commutation of Teleguz's sentence, Garst told WHSV's Morgan Donnelly, "I have no comment."
But she is not the only one standing by the conviction. The family of Stephanie Sipe, many of whom still live in the Harrisonburg area, had been waiting for the execution.
Sipe's sister, Jennifer Tilley, spoke with WHSV last week with the execution date rapidly approaching.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister," said Tilley. "And it blows my mind, it really does, that he is still trying to fight and plead for his life."
And Teleguz, along with his attorneys, have, in fact, fought for years.
Since the 2006 conviction, two key prosecution witnesses have recanted, and a number of Teleguz advocates questioned what they saw as holes in evidence. The Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center launched a petition on Teleguz's behalf that garnered over 100,000 signatures.
His execution has been delayed several times for appeals to higher courts, until the Supreme Court chose not to review the case.
In recent weeks, some big names came on board with the 'Justice for Ivan' movement, including Virgin CEO Richard Branson, who expressed public support for clemency for Teleguz.
"It just demonstrates what a compelling case Mr. Teleguz presents to Governor McAuliffe," Elizabeth Peiffer, with the Virginia Capital Representation Center, told WHSV.
But even as others questioned Teleguz's guilt, the family of Stephanie Sipe says they know the truth.
"The family has heavy hearts. We are struggling daily, all the time, looking over our shoulders waiting for that phone call. Unsecure right now, until justice is served."
Following McAuliffe's announcement on Thursday, Ivan Teleguz's attorneys sent WHSV the following statement:
On behalf of Ivan Teleguz, his family, friends, and his broad group of thousands of faithful supporters, we are thankful the Governor has granted clemency to stop Ivan’s April 25 execution.
We do not believe the death penalty is rightly imposed where, as here, it is based on recanted and false testimony. Governor McAuliffe correctly recognized that our system of justice cannot stand by and allow an execution to proceed when jurors were told to impose a death sentence based on false information.
Stephanie Sipe’s murder was an unspeakable tragedy. Thankfully, Stephanie’s murderer, Michael Hetrick, has been punished and sentenced in the manner agreed to by the Commonwealth.
In the 11 years since Ivan was sentenced to death, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence of any involvement in this crime. He is especially grateful to his family, friends, and extraordinary supporters who have stood by him, and come to his aid in helping others learn the truth about his case. He asks for their continued support as he works now to fully prove that he is not responsible for Stephanie’s death. On behalf of Ivan, his family, and all of his supporters, we are grateful for the Governor's decision.
Stephanie Sipe's sister responded to WHSV's request for comment by saying she was thankful for the call but had no comment.
WHSV also reached out to Andrey Teleguz, Ivan's brother, and he provided the following statement on behalf of the Teleguz family after McAuliffe's decision:
We are glad about the governor’s decision and thank him for intervening in Ivan’s case. We hoped and prayed that it would have been a full pardon but this is a step and opportunity to continue fighting for his freedom. We know Ivan is innocent and it’s only a matter of time before the evidence can prove it. Time is what we needed and now we have it. We thank all supporters that stood up and fought on behalf of Ivan, the fight is not over.
Stay with WHSV for updates.