Innocent on Death Row: a look into Virginia inmate’s sentence

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Last week, students packed into a Clark lecture hall for the opportunity to hear from Elizabeth Peiffer, a lawyer from a local nonprofit law firm, about one of her current cases. Hosted by the Roosevelt Society, Amnesty International at UVA, and the College Republicans and Democrats, the lecture focused on the case of Ivan Teleguz, a man sentenced to death for what Peiffer believes is a crime he did not commit.

On July 22, 2001, Stephanie Sipe was murdered in her apartment in Harrisonburg, Virginia. In the small town, there was acute pressure on the police and investigators to find the culprit who committed the crime.

Immediately, the blame turned to Teleguz, Sipe’s ex-boyfriend and father of her child. Although the timeline didn’t quite fit his story, as he had spent the day with family and friends and would not have been able to get to Harrisonburg in time to commit said crime, investigators remained focused on Teleguz, not fully exploring other leads.

The case went cold until years later when Aleksey Safanov found himself in the interrogation room of a police station. He had a criminal history of various charges, including threats to a police officer as well as a visa that was in danger of being revoked, provoking possible deportation.

Although he had known Teleguz in the past, he had no knowledge of the case against him and what it entailed. That is, until the investigators walked him through the entire case against Teleguz and outlined every detail of their theory of Teleguz’s guilt.  To save himself, Safanov agreed to testify against Teleguz on the condition that he could stay in the country. He claimed that Teleguz had hired two men, Edwin Gilkes and Michael Hetrick, to carry out the murder, and had driven them down to Harrisonburg himself.

When Gilkes was later questioned, he claimed that Teleguz had committed another murder outside of a recreation center in a small town in Virginia. Upon further investigation by the defense team, they found that this was a false lead. However, it was included in the prosecutor’s case against Teleguz.

Hetrick, who was also under the potential danger of the capital punishment verdict, declared Teleguz guilty of trying to get out of paying child support payments with no proof of evidence.

Although not a strong base for the prosecution, they sought the death penalty.

“The case went to trial with the entire evidence that had been based on three witnesses,”said Peiffer.


Eleven years later, Teleguz remains on death row. Since then, much has changed regarding the evidence in the case.

Most importantly, two of the key witnesses, Gilkes and Safanov, recanted their statements about Teleguz’s guilt, claiming that they had been coerced and threatened into making false claims and had lied on the stand in order to protect themselves.

“There was nothing offered [to them] except that it was the right thing to do [by recanting their statements],” Peiffer said, “Questions about Ivan’s case were left unanswered…the only evidence that remains against Ivan is Hedrick’s testimony.”

Teleguz’s execution is set for April 25 of this year Even though Teleguz has not admitted to the crime, repeatedly he has been denied stays of execution, even when he was offered a deal to serve a life sentence instead.

At the event last week, students signed letters addressed to Governor McAuliffe, the only one who would be able to grant a stay of execution for Teleguz.

Although Pieffer presented a strong case, Emily Hamilton, a third year Foreign Affairs major, still felt that there was more information to be heard.

“I still feel like I need to see the other side of the story and the bigger picture,” Hamilton said, “I think he should certainly be granted a stay of execution, but I would need to know more about the case before I could think he’s completely innocent.”

Pieffer urged everyone to get in contact with Governor McAuliffe to prevent the execution from taking place. They provided his office number, 804-786-2211, for anyone willing to make the call.

Further updates in the case can be tracked on the defense’s website,


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