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Apr 21, 4:20 AM EDT

Virginia governor: Man is guilty, but shouldn't be executed



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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- For weeks, supporters of a man sentenced to death in a 2006 murder-for-hire case urged Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to spare his life because they believe he may be innocent. In the end, they got their wish, but not because the governor doubts he's guilty.

McAuliffe said Thursday that he believes Ivan Teleguz hired another man to kill his ex-girlfriend in 2001. But the Democrat said he cannot let Teleguz be put to death because jurors were given false information that may have swayed their sentencing decision.

"American values demand that every person, no matter their crime, be given the due process of law," McAuliffe said. "In this case, we now know that the jury acted on false information, and that it was driven by passions and fears raised - not from actual evidence introduced at trial - but from inference."

Teleguz, 38, who maintains that he is innocent, was scheduled to be executed Tuesday. But McAuliffe commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He was convicted in 2006 of ordering the death of 20-year-old Stephanie Sipe, the mother of his child, who was stabbed to death in her Harrisonburg apartment. Sipe's mother found her body two days later, along with their 2-year-old son, who was unharmed.

McAuliffe had faced mounting pressure to call off the execution out of concern over executing a possibly innocent man after two key prosecution witnesses who implicated Teleguz recanted their testimony.

McAuliffe said his office received roughly 6,000 calls and letters about Teleguz's case - the vast majority urging clemency. British billionaire Richard Branson and the newspaper in Virginia's capital city were among those calling on McAuliffe to spare Teleguz.

But McAuliffe said doubts about Teleguz's guilt didn't spur his decision. It was the fact that parts of the man's trial were "terribly flawed," he said.

Jurors were told Teleguz was involved in another murder in Pennsylvania, which never happened, McAuliffe said. It was also suggested that Teleguz was involved with the "Russian mafia," but there's no evidence to support that, McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe said he thinks that made jurors fear for their safety, noting that they asked the judge whether Teleguz could access their personal information and addresses.

Teleguz's execution was the first that McAuliffe has stopped since taking office in 2014. McAuliffe, a Catholic, has said he's personally opposed to capital punishment, but will uphold the law as governor.

Teleguz is the 9th Virginia death row prisoner to be granted clemency since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

His attorneys said he's grateful to those who supported his clemency effort, and said he will continue to fight to clear his name.

"He asks for their continued support as he works now to fully prove that he is not responsible for Stephanie's death," attorneys Elizabeth Peiffer and Michael Williams said in a statement.

Marsha Garst, the lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment.

Since Teleguz went to death row, two men who implicated him have said they lied under pressure from investigators they claim were fixated on putting Teleguz away.

Kevin Whitfield, the lead police investigator in the case, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he has never wavered from his belief that Teleguz is guilty. Sipe's sister has also said her family still believes Teleguz is responsible.

"There's no doubt in my mind that he hired these people to kill my sister," Jennifer Tilley told WHSV-TV last week. Sipe's family could not immediately be reached by The Associated Press on Thursday.

After the two prosecution witnesses recanted their trial testimony in written affidavits, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a judge to conduct a hearing on Teleguz's innocence claim.

But the judge rejected Teleguz's bid after one of the witnesses, Edwin Gilkes, refused to testify and another - who had been deported to Kyrgyzstan - didn't show up. Michael Hetrick, whose DNA was found at the scene, again testified that Teleguz hired him and Gilkes to kill Sipe.

Teleguz's family came to the U.S. when he was a child to escape religious persecution in Ukraine, when it was controlled by the Soviet Union. He is deeply religious and spends most of his time in prison doing Bible studies, his attorneys said.

The Virginia governor's decision in Teleguz's case came the same day Arkansas conducted its first execution in nearly a dozen years despite a flurry of legal challenges that had spared three convicted killers.

Ledell Lee was pronounced dead at 11:56 p.m. Thursday, capping a chaotic week of legal wrangling. Arkansas originally wanted to put eight inmates to death before the state's supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in its lethal injection process, expires at the end of April. Arkansas wants to put two other inmates to death Monday, and one next Thursday.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher . Read more of her work at http://apne.ws/2hIhzDb .

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