A Death Penalty Commutation

New York Times
January 17, 2012

On Tuesday, Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware commuted the death sentence of Robert Gattis to life without parole. In doing so, he said he gave "great weight" to the careful decision of the state board of pardons to recommend that the sentence be commuted, the first such recommendation the board has made since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1974. As a condition of the commutation, which is supported by a long list of former judges and prosecutors, Mr. Gattis is expected to waive all legal challenges and live out his life in prison.

Mr. Gattis killed his girlfriend in 1990 after an angry quarrel. The pardons board wrote that before the murder, "Mr. Gattis complained to medical professionals of mental illness and involuntary violent impulses" from the extreme and continuous sexual abuse he suffered as a child. The governor called this background "among the most troubling I have encountered." Mr. Gattis's lawyers failed to submit much of the ample proof about his mental illness and its devastating effects. The board was able to take full account of that mitigating factor.

Even though state law does not require a unanimous jury vote on death, four members of the pardons board were troubled by the jury's 10-to-2 split on the penalty because they believe such verdicts should be unanimous.

Some board members also noted the great disparity in sentences among serious murder cases. The difference in penalties for other murders in domestic disputes and Mr. Gattis's sentence "offends a moral sense of proportionality," the board said in its recommendation.

For one board member, the rationale for life without parole is more basic. "When the taking of life is not required as a matter of self-defense," he explained, "one cannot ethically or morally take that act." Commuting Mr. Gattis's sentence meets the imperative of justice. Imposing the death penalty in his case, as in any case, would have been grossly unjust.


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