'​Innocent on Death Row' event calls on McAuliffe to issue a stay of execution for man convicted of murder-for-hire

Ivan Teleguz execution date set for April 25

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 Elizabeth Peiffer is an attorney at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center.

Darya Tahan | Cavalier Daily

Over 200 students gathered in Clark 107 Monday to listen to attorney Elizabeth Peiffer make the case that Ivan Teleguz — a death row inmate convicted of hiring a man to murder his ex-girlfriend and who is set to be executed on April 25 — is innocent.

“He was charged with hiring someone to murder the ex-girlfriend and mother of his child, Stephanie Sipe,” Peiffer, a staff attorney at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily prior to the event. “After he was convicted a lot of evidence began to emerge that he was innocent of the murder.”

The murder took place in July 2001 in Harrisonburg. Teleguz is alleged to have hired and driven two men — Edwin Gilkes and Michael Hetrick — from Lancaster, Penn. to Harrisonburg for the purpose of killing Sipe. Ultimately, Hetrick is believed to have cut Sipe’s throat.

According to Peiffer, there was no DNA or physical evidence found linking Teleguz to the crime and two of the three men who testified against Teleguz have since recanted their prior testimonies.

Arianna Zoghi, president of Amnesty International at U.Va. and a second-year College and Batten student, volunteers at Peiffer’s law firm and explained Amnesty International’s official position on this case. Amnesty International co-sponsored the event alongside the Roosevelt Society, the University Democrats and the College Republicans.

“Amnesty International as an organization is super opposed to the death penalty, and also in cases where there are questions of innocence,” Zoghi said. “Amnesty recently put out an urgent action about this specific case.”

At the event, Peiffer presented the timeline and facts of the case. The presentation was live-streamed on Facebook for members of the community who could not attend.

A jury convicted Teleguz of capital murder-for-hire in 2006 and subsequent appeals were denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, according to Peiffer, can examine the evidence and stop the execution by granting clemency.

The presentation was followed by a question and answer session, with some questions coming from the Facebook live-stream. One audience member asked if the third witness, Michael Hetrick, would change his testimony.

During her presentation, Peiffer said police had told Hetrick about the death penalty and had promised to “save him” if he he could help them implicate Teleguz.

“I don’t know. I can certainly hope he will have the same conscience and realize what his testimony has wrought,” Peiffer said. “[The] Commonwealth made very clear that Hetrick has the most serious thing at stake — his life. I wish he would but I don’t think we can count on it.”

Another audience member asked if granting clemency to Teleguz would mean that he would be released. Peiffer said the decision-making power lies with McAuliffe and there is a whole range of possibilities.

“[The] number one most important thing is for Ivan to be alive — he won’t be able to prove his innocence if he is dead,” Peiffer said.

A third audience member asked if appealing to McAuliffe was the last measure. Peiffer said while they are also sending a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, what is most important to their case is for McAuliffe to look at the evidence and grant clemency.

Efforts to halt the execution through the judicial system have been unsuccessful thus far, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denying a motion for stay of execution on March 16.

Virginia Chambers, a first-year College student and communications coordinator for the University Democrats, said the University Democrats became involved because they wanted to spread awareness of the case.

“I think that this would probably just be another brick in the wall against the death penalty. I think U.Va. students could be instrumental but as long as we have voices coming from ... all segments of Virginia,” Chambers said. “I think we could really make a big change here.”

Adam Kimelman, a second-year College student and incoming College Republicans chair, said the College Republicans encouraged their membership to attend.

“We did some research about Ivan's situation and felt that this situation transcended politics,” Kimelman said. “We promoted it to our membership and encouraged them to go.”

The event closed with the beginning of a letter-writing campaign to show support for Teleguz to McAuliffe.

First-year College student Savannah Quick attended the event and decided to write a letter in support.

“I did decide to write a letter because I don’t feel like he deserves to be on death row,” Quick said. “I feel like he’s innocent and I feel that it’s really important that Governor McAuliffe grants clemency.”

Peiffer said getting the Governor to take action comes down to showing McAuliffe public concern about the case and support the casting of clemency.

Mary Garner McGehee, a second-year College student and member of the Roosevelt Society, said the Roosevelt Society’s meeting next week will involve a discussion about the case and the justice system.

“I think [Peiffer] made a very compelling case, but I think it’s good to have organizations like the Roosevelt Society where you can kind of talk about both sides of the case,” McGehee said. “I personally think she did a good job of representing her client and that’s important — to recognize the role of the lawyer.”

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