Image: Robert Gattis
Delaware Department of Correction via AP
Robert Gattis had been scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday for killing Shirley Slay in 1990.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/17/2012 1:23:11 PM ET 2012-01-17T18:23:11

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has decided to spare the life of a man who was facing execution this week for the 1990 murder of his girlfriend.

Robert Gattis was scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday for killing Shirley Slay.

But Markell has decided to accept a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons that he commute Gattis' death sentence to life in prison without parole.

Markell says the decision to grant clemency to Gattis is among the most difficult he has made as a public official, and that he realizes it may cause pain to Slay's family.

But the governor also said he gives great weight to the decision by the pardons board, which reviewed Gattis' case thoroughly and voted 4 to 1 for commutation.

According to delawareonline.com, it is the first time in modern memory that a Delaware governor has commuted a death sentence.

Markell said Gattis must surrender all future legal appeals and spend the rest of his natural life in prison, as a condition of his clemency.

Gattis' plea for clemency was based on new evidence about the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a youth. He said he has become a new person in prison.

"I'm not the Robert Gattis that killed Shirley Slay. That is not who I am now. I am the Robert Gattis who has two sons I love and respect," he said at his parole hearing last week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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