taking the words of Jesus seriously

Unless Governor McAuliffe intervenes, Virginia will execute Ivan Teleguz on April 25th—despite evidence showing that his conviction and death sentence were based on false testimony.

I have known Ivan for more than seven years. When I first met him, I found it hard to believe that this quiet, shy person was capable of doing the things he had been accused of doing. Prosecutors suggested that he paid someone to murder his former girlfriend to avoid paying child support. But everyone knows you do not stop paying child support when a child’s mother dies, and Ivan made his payments.

Jurors convicted Ivan based on the word of two witnesses who have now admitted in sworn statements that they lied at his trial and have no reason to believe Ivan was involved in the crime. Prosecutors also told jurors that Ivan was involved in a second arranged murder in Ephrata, PA, and they must sentence him to death because he solves problems by arranging murders. But since Ivan’s trial, police and even the office of the Virginia Attorney General have conceded that there was no Ephrata murder.

The more I learned, the more convinced I became that Ivan had not done it. As a lawyer, I am confounded that things have gone this far and the legal system has been unable to make the situation right, and that I am fighting against the execution of my innocent client just two weeks away. But I stop indulging my own frustration when I think of Ivan sitting in a tiny cell on death row counting the days until his execution.

Ivan is a model prisoner who for the past 11 years has spent most of his waking hours at his job cleaning the unit and studying the Bible. Ivan’s Christian faith is the most important thing in his life. It is the reason he is in the United States. Ivan came here with his family when he was a child, fleeing from persecution by authorities of the former Soviet Union in his native Ukraine for practicing Christianity.

Ivan’s family members printed Bibles in secret and held worship services at night to avoid discovery by the authorities. In elementary school, Ivan was taunted by teachers and failed in his classwork, because Christians were not allowed to advance. Ivan saw family members and friends victimized by violence and poverty, and imprisoned and harassed for their Christian worship.

Ivan came with his family to the United States so that he could live his faith. Now, just two weeks from the date Virginia has set for his death, it is his unwavering faith in God that sustains him.

The execution ritual begins weeks before an execution. The condemned are increasingly treated as less than human. The cleaning job that Ivan has performed diligently for years—and the dignity of work—was taken after an execution date was set. He is no longer allowed to go outside with fellow inmates who have become his friends. Now, officers bang on his door every 15 minutes and shine a flashlight in his face to make sure he does not kill himself before the state’s execution.

In the final days, Ivan will be moved to entirely new surroundings and not allowed to have personal items. Officers will sit in front of his Plexiglas-enclosed cell observing every moment. On the day of his execution, Ivan will be surrounded by new prison staff—total strangers. And in two weeks, unless Gov. McAuliffe grants clemency, Virginia will pull a curtain shut and force Ivan to lie on a gurney with his arms outstretched, and kill him by injecting him with drugs that do not meet government standards.

I sometimes ask Ivan how he can face this. His answer is simple and always the same: “I am a Christian.”

My faith is not as strong as Ivan’s. However, I do share a belief with leaders of the Virginia Council of Churches who wrote Gov. McAuliffe in support of Ivan’s clemency: “At the heart of God’s justice is the dignity of the human person. . . . The death penalty is an affront to human dignity. It is not handed down to offenders by a flawless judicial system. A justice system that allows even one innocent person to be executed by the state is intolerable and unacceptable.”

I know Ivan’s humanity and dignity, and cannot fathom God’s justice allowing it to be destroyed this way.

But time is running out. The power to stop this lies in the hands of Gov. McAuliffe. Please join us this week in calling on him to stop Ivan’s execution.

You can contact Gov. McAuliffe to express your opposition to Ivan’s execution by calling 804-786-2211. Learn more about Ivan’s case here: ivansprayerforjustice.org.

About The Author

Elizabeth Peiffer is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, a not-for-profit law firm dedicated to providing direct representation in death penalty cases in the Commonwealth of Virginia and assisting attorneys representing death-sentenced inmates or those facing possible death sentences.

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