Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Seeking Clemency for Robert Gattis

The following is a letter I sent Governor Markell last week, co-signed by my Conservative colleague Rabbi Michael Beals, asking for clemency for Robert Gattis. I've also signed onto a joint, interfaith clergy letter asking for clemency. If you are so moved, I welcome you to take similar action and contact Governor Markell's office.

CORRECTION: You can go to this site to sign a petition to go before the Governor and the state clemency board

Dear Governor Markell:           
I write to you in support of the clemency application of Robert Gattis.  There are compelling reasons to grant Mr. Gattis clemency, reasons which have nothing to do with belief in, or opposition to the death penalty.  Rather, they relate to Mr. Gattis's horrific background which damaged him profoundly and which was never disclosed to his trial jury; and his demonstrated redemption and rehabilitation over the course of his 21 years of incarceration following his death sentence.   I am asking you to show him mercy, because mercy is warranted. 
    As a child and adolescent Mr. Gattis was sexually molested by a series of perpetrators beginning at an age so young it is disturbing to consider.  The molestations were often quite brutal.  Mostly they occurred when he was left in the "care" of others who had no interest or ability to protect him.  Mr. Gattis was also physically abused by the men in his mother's life, in one case a step-father who was a violent drunk with little regard for a child not his own, and in the other, his natural father, who abused his son as severely as the step-father.  Mr. Gattis's mother did not provide him with even the most basic protection that one would expect from a parent.  Her absence from the home allowed much of the sexual abuse to occur; and although she witnessed many of the acts perpetrated by her husband and paramour against her son, she did nothing to intervene or protect him.   
             This background does not excuse Mr. Gattis's crime during which, in a jealous and irrational rage, he went to the home of his former girlfriend, Shirley Slay, kicked in her door and shot and killed her.  The crime was terrible, as are all murders, and Mr. Gattis's life history does not make it any less terrible.  But it does provide some insight and understanding of the man, and how he arrived at a place in his life where he could commit such an act. Our society has made great strides in recognizing that a background of sexual and physical abuse and trauma profoundly damages a child's ability to grow into a healthy adult, and our state has demonstrated a commitment to dealing with this issue.  It strikes me as quite troubling that we in Delaware would put to death a man who suffered from the same terrifying childhood sexual and physical abuse that shocks us in the headlines today.  Mr. Gattis's many abusers included trusted family members who took advantage of him while no one – 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 unnoticed. 
             I understand that Delaware’s Constitution creates a role for grace in the administration of the death penalty, and allows you to grant mercy to the condemned.  I am aware of a number of recent instances in which the Governors of Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma have exercised this grace on behalf of other inmates facing the death penalty.  The stories of these cases share a common thread with Robert Gattis, in that deeply troubling information about the tragic lives of these individuals came to light long after their original trials.   One governor (John Kasich of Ohio), in language that echoes the terror of Mr. Gattis's life, found that as a child the condemned "was destined for disaster," having "suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him."  Mr. Gattis too was destined for disaster considering his background. 
             None of this tragic story was ever presented at Mr. Gattis's trial.  While the courts have had opportunities to look over Mr. Gattis's case, it is my understanding that because this evidence was not presented earlier, Mr. Gattis faced legal hurdles that prevented the courts from giving this evidence their full consideration.  The lawyers who handled Mr. Gattis's trial and appeals have acknowledged their errors in not telling this story at the earliest opportunity.  I understand why in the interest of bringing the legal case to a close the courts have the right to say this evidence was provided too late to be considered, but the fact that Mr. Gattis's lawyers failed him in this respect makes it all the more important that you take his horrifying life story into account in determining whether Robert Gattis is worthy of mercy. 

            Another fact that no court or jury would have had a chance to consider is Mr. Gattis's remarkable rehabilitation during his 21 years under a sentence of death.  Several former Delaware state correctional officers have come forward and attested to his good conduct in custody, and the positive influence he has played in the lives of other inmates.  His two sons, successful and thoughtful young men, have strong and enduring relationships with him.  They speak of his positive influence on them and their families.  Mr. Gattis is keenly involved and interested in their lives.  Over the years of his incarceration, through letters, visits and telephone calls, Mr. Gattis has counseled them not to repeat the mistakes that he has made.  He has provided similar mentoring and guidance to other young people, including nieces and nephews, who also attest to the positive influence he has had over them.  Mr. Gattis has accepted full responsibility for the terrible crime that he committed, and has repeatedly and consistently expressed remorse and contrition for his act. 
             I would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you regarding this extraordinarily important matter.   I am motivated by my belief that, even accepting the legitimacy of the death penalty, Mr. Gattis is not a man who needs to be removed from the human community.  The crime he committed 21 years ago was committed by a different person than the person he is today.  Although limited by his confinement, his contribution to society today is a positive one, and it is my hope that you will allow him to continue to live in confinement for the rest of his natural life. 

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