Ivan Teleguz, a Ukrainian national, is facing imminent execution by the US state of Virginia, despite clear evidence suggesting his innocence.
Ivan Teleguz was born in 1978 in the small town of Kamyanka, then part of the Soviet Union and now in western Ukraine. After suffering years of intense religious persecution for their Christian faith, Ivan's family was forced to flee their homeland, ultimately settling in the USA. Ivan never applied for US citizenship, and remains a proud Ukrainian.
In 2006, Ivan was convicted and sentenced to death for hiring two other men - Michael Hetrick and Edwin Gilkes - to kill a former girlfriend. Lead detective Kevin Whitfield worked on the case from day one, but it took him three years from the time of the murder to gather enough evidence to arrest Mr Teleguz. In the process, he falsified statements to secure a search warrant for Ivan's DNA (which eventually showed that Ivan was not the source of the unknown blood found at the crime scene), and worked hard to make witness – and known criminal – Aleksey Safanov reliable. During a conversation with a Massachusetts law enforcement official in February 2003, Mr Whitfield was told that Safanov’s “credibility is going to be garbage. […] You think you’re getting the right information and you haven’t. They’ve always lied, they’re going to continue to lie”. Still, Safanov remained one of the prosecution’s main witnesses during the trial, contributing strongly to Mr Teleguz’s death sentence.
Gilkes – one of the men allegedly hired by Ivan to commit the murder – had a close relationship with two men named Gene Popov and Anatoly Rymarenko. During the trial, the defence counsel failed to illuminate that these two held a serious grudge against Ivan, blaming him for setting up the murder of one of their closest friends a few months previously. They had both repeatedly urged Gilkes to get rid of Ivan because of it. A few days after the murder of Ivan's girlfriend, Popov and Rymarenko abruptly left Pennsylvania, telling Gilkes they “needed to disappear”. This is only one of many issues Ivan's defence failed to present to the court. Directly after the trial, the head of the defence team, Paul Maslakowski, was barred from trying future cases. His supervisor, Joseph Flood, deemed him incompetent, and stated that the trial was “a disaster from the defence perspective”.
Since the verdict fell in 2006, new information has come to light strongly suggesting that Ivan is innocent.
Jurors who convicted Ivan were never told significant information exonerating him and implicating others. Since the trial, the prosecution’s lead witnesses, Safanov and Gilkes, have both come forward to admit that they lied in court when they implicated Ivan in the murder.
Gilkes admitted that he fabricated his testimony at trial, under pressure from the State and in order to receive a lesser sentence. He now says he has no reason to believe that Ivan hired Hetrick to kill the victim. Safanov recanted his testimony and admitted that Ivan never told him about the murder. The state’s third main witness, Hetrick, has repeatedly refused to speak with Ivan's attorneys.
Despite the collapse of the case against Ivan, Virginia is pushing ahead with the execution on narrow, bureaucratic grounds – since his lawyers failed to raise crucial arguments in previous pleadings, they were barred from doing so in subsequent appeals.
Ivan is now on Virginia’s death row, fighting to correct the erroneous convictions that resulted from the omission of this critical evidence. The conditions are harsh and isolating. He is restricted to a single, concrete cell with a solid steel door for almost 24 hours a day; prison regulations require him to eat all meals alone in his cell, and he is taken from his cell only to shower and to spend occasional one-hour periods outside in a single, small cage.
On 16 May 2012, an oral hearing was held in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, allowing Ivan's lawyers to request that the Court remand the case back to the District Court, and thereby ask the District Court to consider whether Ivan's previous lawyers were ineffective in failing to raise claims of his innocence at an earlier stage. Commenting on the fact that two out of three main witnesses had admitted to lying in court, Judge Wynn said that granting Ivan an evidentiary hearing would be “a more humane way to carry out justice” than not to.
Judge Wynn remarked:
"He only had three witnesses. You had nothing else corroborated, and two of those witnesses come back and say: I was telling a lie. That sounds to me like it might be a basis for saying that this man might actually be innocent."
In a unanimous ruling on 2 August 2012, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back down to Virginia's District Court, ruling that Judge James P. Jones had failed to properly weigh new evidence of “actual innocence”. The Circuit’s three-judge panel rejected Virginia's strict interpretation of criminal procedural rules, instead ordering Judge Jones to determine "how a reasonable juror would perceive all of the evidence in the record".
Virginia's District Court must now decide whether to simply re-evaluate its decision or order a new evidentiary hearing.
The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Nina Karpachova, first became involved in Ivan's case in August 2010. In contravention of the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, Ukraine was not notified of Ivan's arrest; there is no consular record of such a notification being provided, either orally or in writing.
Ivan is in desperate need of more help from the Ukrainian government. He is assisted by Reprieve's EC Project.