For the second time, a federal judge ruled Thursday that there’s not enough new evidence for death-row inmate Ivan Teleguz’s conviction to be tossed out.
A Rockingham County jury convicted and sentenced the 35-year-old to death in 2006 for the murder-for-hire killing of Stephanie Sipe at her Harrisonburg apartment five years earlier.
“I find that Teleguz has not shown that he is actually innocent of the murder-for-hire of Stephanie Sipe,” wrote Judge James Jones in his roughly 60-page opinion filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke. “Based upon my consideration of all of the new evidence, and without regard to whether it would necessarily be admissible under the rules of evidence ... I find that it is not likely that any reasonable juror would have had a reasonable doubt as to Teleguz’s guilt of this crime.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst said she's pleased with the ruling.
“I am hopeful that Stephanie Sipe will finally have justice and her family some peace,” said Garst.
In August 2012, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Jones, when he first refused to overturn the conviction, did not thoroughly analyze claims that two prosecution witnesses, Aleksey Safanov and Edward L. Gilkes Jr., 35, said they lied when testifying against Teleguz.
In November, the judge held a three-day evidentiary hearing in U.S. District Court in Abingdon to hear “new evidence.”
However, one witness didn’t show up for the hearing and the other declined to answer questions when put on the witness chair. All Jones had was affidavits that were written by the two men.
“Because they both refused to testify, I did not have the opportunity to hear and observe, subject to cross-examination, any recantations by Gilkes or Safanov,” Jones wrote in his opinion.
Michael A. Hetrick, 39, of Warren, Pa. admitted to killing Sipe for $2,500. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder and is serving two consecutive life terms in prison. He has not recanted his testimony.
The victim’s mother found Sipe dead on July 23, 2001, in her daughter's apartment in Deer Run just off Port Republic Road in Harrisonburg. Police say her throat had been cut. Sipe’s son, 2 years old at the time, was not physically harmed during the attack.
Teleguz, a Ukrainian national, orchestrated the murder-for-hire plot because he was angry over having to pay child support to Sipe, prosecutors say.
The judge said the evidence all leads to Teleguz. He said alternative theories are not credible.
“The evidence of Stephanie Sipe’s murder is incomplete without Teleguz’s involvement, and he has offered no evidence to establish a credible alternative scenario,” the judge wrote. “Speculations that the murder was the result of a drug robbery gone bad or that it was conceived by others in order to cast the blame on Teleguz are simply farfetched.”
Jones also noted that there was a lack of ties between Gilkes and Hetrick to the victim.
“The idea that a jury would believe that two petty criminals like Gilkes and Hetrick would drive 200 miles to a strange city in another state to rob a 20-year-old they had never met [for] her drugs or money — or that Teleguz’s Russian Mafia enemies would, instead of killing him, direct the murder of his former girl friend in the hope that it would get him in trouble — is unlikely at the least,” he wrote.
The case will now be sent back to the court of appeals for review. If the court of appeals doesn’t overturn the conviction, an execution date will be set. Teleguz then will have the option of asking for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. His last option would be to ask Gov. Terry McAuliffe for stay of execution.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or firstname.lastname@example.org