The case for a second chance

January 17, 2012

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty reports on the case of Robert Gattis--and what the fight to save him says about the criminal justice system.

ROBERT GATTIS, who faces an execution date on Friday, January 20, has won the first pardons board recommendation for clemency for a Delaware death row prisoner in the modern era of capital punishment. The state's Board of Pardons voted 4-1 in favor of his death sentence being commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

Now, it is up to Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat and former parole board member himself, whether Gattis lives or dies.

Gattis was convicted of killing his girlfriend, Shirley Slay, during a domestic dispute in 1990, and he was sentenced to death in 1992. He has spent the last 20 years on death row. Gattis has never denied shooting Shirley, but he has expressed remorse for his actions ever since.

The parole board's decision to recommend clemency was unexpected, and opponents of the death penalty are thrilled to have won this important round in the fight to save Robert. They say they are confident Markell will do the right thing, given the board's decision. Exonerated Illinois death row prisoner Darby Tillis traveled 20 hours to join efforts to try to help save Robert. "I was just so elated to hear the words that he had won his clemency yesterday," Tillis said. "It just opened up floods of joy in my heart."

Robert Gattis
Robert Gattis

Delaware's parole board has never once, in 16 previous capital cases that came before it, recommended clemency. Barbara Lewis, Robert's mother, attended the clemency hearing. "I could tell the board was listening when they heard people speak in support of Robert," she said. "But it was so hard to tell what they were thinking. I wasn't sure they even cared."

Sandy Jones, an activist with the Delaware chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a professor at Rowan University, agreed. She said:

Quite honestly, I was bracing myself and Barbara for bad news. I didn't think the board would vote this way, even though Robert is surely deserving of clemency. I think this shows the changing mood with respect to the death penalty, as well as the persuasive clemency fight waged on Robert's behalf.

DURING THE hearing before the board, Gattis' lawyers presented evidence that Robert had suffered systematic abuse and neglect while he was growing up. Their clemency petition describes how Robert was sexually violated at a young age by members of his own family, including being anally raped, and how his stepfather beat and humiliated him. Mental health experts who examined Robert described his case as one of "catastrophic abuse and neglect."

What you can do

Contact Gov. Jack Markell to urge him to follow the recommendation of the state board of parole, and commute Robert's sentence. Call the governor's office in the capital of Dover at 302-744-4101, and fax to 302-739-2775. Call his office in Wilmington at 302-577-3210, and fax to 302-577-3118. You can send an online message at the state of Delaware's website.

Sign an online petition to Gov. Markell calling on him to grant clemency.

As a result of this abuse, Robert began to show signs early on that he was suffering--he would bite himself and sometimes lash out in a rage. As Wanda, Robert's sister, tearfully told the board:

I always believed if people really knew Robert and what he lived through and what it did to him, they would understand...I was molested by my own family members, and it hasn't been anything easy to let go. For the love of my brother, please understand that he deserves a second chance. Not only does he keep our family going, he's doing the same thing inside of these prison walls, and he's making a difference."

The clemency petition draws out a broader point that needs to be remembered in more cases like these where guilt or innocence is not in doubt, but an injustice is nevertheless taking place:

There is no excuse or justification for Mr. Gattis's crime. Yet the horrific sexual and physical abuse he suffered provides insight into the impairment of the man who committed that crime.

In Delaware, we have recently learned, to our shock and sorrow, that undetected childhood sexual and physical abuse is widespread. Our state has begun to provide services to victims and training to those who come into frequent contact with our children. We do so because we now know that without intervention, the effects of prolonged childhood sexual abuse are long-lasting, and profoundly disruptive of its victims' abilities to function in intimate relationships.

Robert Gattis never received any such intervention. He was at the mercy of his abusers from preschool to adolescence. His many abusers included trusted family members who took advantage of him, while no on--not a parent, not a teacher, not a doctor or clergy person--came to his aid. Much of this abuse occurred on our watch, as he passed through our schools virtually unnoticed, without meaningful intervention.

Members of the board were clearly moved by the other arguments made for stopping the execution. For example, his clemency petition goes through 17 cases very similar to Roberts--involving domestic violence and murder--yet in all of the others, the defendant received a sentence less than death. "The sentencing disparity in these cases has become too great and offends a moral sense of proportionality," the board wrote in issuing its decision.

WHILE IT is wonderful that the parole board has drawn the right conclusions--and Gov. Markell needs to, as well--you can't help but wonder what impact this information would have had on the jury at his original trial, had they heard it. But no jury or judge has ever heard about Robert's horrific history before. When it was first brought up in legal appeals in 2006, the courts barred it from being presented on procedural grounds.

If the governor stops Robert's execution, his sentence will be commuted to life without the possibility of parole. This would certainly be a victory over the death penalty, but it has to be asked why Robert shouldn't ever have a second chance--especially in light of the evidence that has now seen the light of day that he never really had a first chance.

While the question of whether Robert should be freed isn't being discussed, it should be. Given the years he has spent in prison--not to mention the horrific abuse he suffered before then--this would be the humane thing to do.

Another question that isn't being discussed in this case is the real way to combat domestic abuse, which is completely bound up with the tragedy that sent him to death row.

Robert's early life of abuse--during which he never received any treatment--led him to attempt suicide, turn to alcohol and act violently in relationships with those closest to him, including Shirley Slay. Certainly imposing the death penalty or a life sentence on Robert will do nothing to stop similar types of crimes, because they originate in a society that inflicts oppression and inequality on so many.

The only way to really stop crimes like these is to work for a society where the aim is for every child to be raised with love and support--and if they are not, they have access to the kind of mental health and social work services they need.

While the question of whether Robert (and so many other Roberts) should get a second chance isn't being considered, it is something activists will need to keep in the forefront of our struggle for justice as we go forward.

"Robert would be wonderful on the outside," says Sandy Jones. "I've known him for eight years, and he is well-loved and respected on death row. He is a tireless advocate for everyone else, not just himself, and that has won him so much love and respect."

Robert's mother Barbara, who has stood by her son during his incarceration, had this message to send to Robert's supporters:

I am so grateful to the efforts of the legal team and activists. It has been a united effort, and I want people to know that this effort is appreciated. There are no words to express my love and gradiute for all the support, effort, prayers and thoughts. I don't believe there will be any regrets. You've all opened the door of hope for a better tomorrow.

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