In 2017, Kirkland & Ellis and the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center won a rare grant of clemency for Ivan Teleguz, who was sentenced to death for the murder-for-hire of his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Sipes. Because his attorneys were able to argue persuasively that false information had played a large role in the jury’s sentencing decision, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted his death sentence to life without parole, noting that “the sentencing phase of Mr. Teleguz’s trial was terribly flawed and unfair.”
In his clemency application and throughout his legal appeals, Ivan was able to demonstrate that a considerable amount of the evidence used against him at trial was false. For example, Ivan’s codefendants testified that they murdered Sipes at Ivan’s request because they were afraid of Ivan’s ties to the Russian mafia. Though evidence showed that the prosecutor knew that Ivan did not have any ties to the Russian mafia—and no other evidence was presented to support that contention—the testimony was nevertheless submitted to the jury. On direct appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court determined that the trial court corrected any prejudice that may have resulted from these comments by instructing the jury to consider them as evidence of the witnesses’ states of mind, rather than for their truth value. At the punishment phase of trial, testimony was admitted suggesting that Ivan had been involved in a separate homicide that occurred outside of an Ephrata, Pennsylvania recreational center. However, later investigation by Ivan’s counsel revealed that this homicide—which was used to support the state’s contention that Ivan should be put to death—never actually happened. Ivan’s post-conviction counsel failed to challenge this evidence in their initial appeal, however, and so the federal courts deemed this claim procedurally defaulted.
Finally, during closing arguments at trial, the prosecutor suggested that, in light of the ties to organized crime, Ivan could simply pick up the phone in prison and order more people killed. In their legal appeals and clemency application, Ivan’s attorneys highlighted the prejudicial impact the whole of this false testimony must have had on the jury. For example, during deliberations, a juror asked the bailiff if Ivan would have access to her personal information. The judge sent back a note to the entire jury stating that Ivan’s attorney had the whole jury’s contact information and failed to reassure the jurors that Ivan himself would not gain personal access to it. Soon after this question was answered, the jury returned a death sentence.
On review, the Virginia Supreme Court found the implications in the closing arguments justified and ultimately not prejudicial. The court reasoned that because Ivan was on trial for murder-for-hire, the nature of that crime alone was enough to justify any argument that he would pose a future danger from prison, regardless of the supposed ties to organized crime or the unadjudicated Ephrata homicide. The court declined to consider the potential prejudicial impact of the judge’s response to the juror’s question during deliberations, because the claim was deemed procedurally defaulted.
Nevertheless, Ivan sought review of his defaulted claims in the federal courts under an exception that excuses procedural default where a prisoner can show that he is likely “actually innocent” of the crime at hand. Over the course of his appeals and the post-conviction investigation, Ivan’s attorneys had received recantations from the witnesses who testified against him at trial. During an evidentiary hearing in district court, however, the recanting witnesses failed to appear, thereby failing to establish the evidence of “actual innocence” needed to overcome the procedural default of the other significant claims in the case. Ultimately, in 2017, an execution date was set for Ivan, and his attorneys ramped up their clemency advocacy focusing both on his potential innocence and the wealth of false information that had been used to sentence and convict him.
In a rare public appearance concerning a clemency request, Governor McAuliffe held a press conference to announce his decision to commute Ivan’s sentence. After reviewing the evidence presented in Ivan’s clemency application—which included a discussion of the procedurally defaulted claims that were never actually considered by the courts—McAuliffe stated that “American values demand that every person, no matter their crime, be given due process of law. In this case, we now know that the jury acted on false information and it was driven by passions and fears raised, not from actual evidence introduced at trial, but from inference. To allow a sentence to stand based on false information and speculation is a violation of the very principles of justice our system holds so dear.” Ivan was one of only two prisoners to receive a commutation of a death sentence under former governor McAuliffe.