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Del. board urges life for death row inmate

DOVER, Del., Jan. 16 (UPI) -- A death-row inmate days from execution should have his sentence for killing his ex-girlfriend changed to life in prison, the Delaware pardons board recommends.

Robert Gattis, 49, scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Friday, deserves clemency because the inmate -- who shot Shirley Slay, 27, between the eyes at close range in 1990 -- had been viciously beaten as a child by his father and stepfather, and sexually molested by several family members, the Board of Pardons said Sunday.

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"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," the board said.

"There is evidence in the record that Mr. Gattis complained to medical professionals of mental illness and involuntary violent impulses over a year before Ms. Slay's murder," the board said. "Although Mr. Gattis knew right from wrong and was guilty of first-degree murder, we, in the exercise of conscience required of us as members of this board, believe that these are sufficiently mitigating facts to warrant consideration for clemency."

Democratic Gov. Jack Markell should therefore commute Gattis' sentence to life in prison without parole, provided Gattis agrees to spend the rest of his life in prison and not seek further appeals or relief, the board said in voting 4-1 for leniency.

"The governor will consider the board's written decision and carefully review the case," Markell spokeswoman Cathy Rossi said in a statement without saying when Markell would make his decision.

Slay's relatives said they doubted Gattis' claims of remorse, radio station WHYY-FM, Philadelphia, reported.

Some board members were impressed by defense lawyers' argument that other prisoners in domestic disputes that ended in homicide had been shown much more leniency at sentencing, with some on track to be released from prison, the board said.

"The sentencing disparity in these cases has become too great and offends a moral sense of proportionality," it said.

One board member questioned the justification of the death sentence in general for cases like Gattis', when a prisoner had no prospect of being released and was no longer considered a danger to society, the board said.

"When the taking of life is not required as a matter of self-defense, that member believes that one cannot ethically or morally take that act," the board said.

Delaware joins several other states showing leniency in death-sentence cases.

In Oregon, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber halted an execution Nov. 22 -- a day after the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to let the execution of death row inmate Gary Haugen, a twice-convicted murderer, go forward.

Kitzhaber said that during his time in office he would not allow any more executions in Oregon, one of 34 states that allow the death penalty.

Kitzhaber, a medical doctor, said his decision was rooted in policy and personal views, including an oath as a physician to "never do harm."

States that have abandoned the death penalty since 2008 include Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York.

The only jurisdictions with constitutional death penalty statutes that have not performed an execution since 1976 are New Hampshire, Kansas, and the U.S. military. All have populated death rows.

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