Delaware Department of Correction, Associated Press
This undated photo provided Jan. 4, 2012 by the Delaware Department of Correction in Smyrna, Del., shows 49-year-old Robert Gattis. Delaware Gov. Jack 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. Gattis was scheduled to die by lethal injection Friday for killing Shirley Slay in 1990.

DOVER, Del. — Gov. Jack Markell, in an apparent first for the state, has spared the life of a man who had been facing execution this week for the murder of his former girlfriend.

Robert Gattis was to die by injection Friday for killing Shirley Slay, 27.

The Democratic governor on Tuesday accepted a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons to commute Gattis' 1992 death sentence to life in prison without parole.

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

"I have spent substantial time considering the harm endured by Ms. Slay and her family, Mr. Gattis' history, and the merits of the clemency application. I have prayed," Markell said. "At the end of the day, although I am not free from doubt, I believe moving forward with the execution of Mr. Gattis is not appropriate."

Markell said he gives great weight to the 4-1 decision by the pardons board. The board considered disturbing accounts of physical and sexual abuse that Gattis claims to have suffered as a child and which his attorneys argued the courts had never properly weighed.

The governor met with members of Slay's family before announcing his decision.

Slay's parents did not immediately return a telephone message left at their Georgia home.

"We are humbled by Gov. Markell's morally courageous decision, mindful of the fact that this is a historic decision," said defense attorney John Deckers.

Markell spokesman Cathy Rossi said administration officials are unaware of any previous case in which a governor received or approved a pardons board recommendation for commutation of a death sentence. Under Delaware law, a governor cannot grant commutation unless a majority of the five-member board recommends it.

The governor agreed with the pardons board that in return for having his sentence commuted, Gattis must forgo any further legal challenge to his conviction and sentence, waive the right to any further request for pardon or commutation, and spend the rest of his life in the maximum-security unit of the state prison in Smyrna.

A court hearing scheduled for Wednesday will formalize Gattis' consent to the terms of commutation, Deckers said.

Prosecutors have said Gattis shot Slay in a jealous rage after years of physically abusing her. His attorneys argued at trial that the death was an accident.

Prosecutor Paul Wallace noted at last week's pardons board hearing that Gattis was on probation for prior abuse of Slay when he killed her. Gattis also had hit Slay several times on the day she was killed and ignored a warning from a police officer to stay away from her, leaving Wallace to wonder what message commutation would send to victims of domestic violence.

Carol Post, executive director of the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said her group has not taken a position on the death penalty and did not take a position in Gattis' case.

"Life without the possibility of parole is a very tough sentence, and it still sends a message that this is a serious crime, and that we as a state are taking his behaviors very seriously and really holding him accountable," Post said.

Gattis exhausted state and federal court appeals, but his lawyers told the pardons board that commutation was appropriate because the courts never considered the sexual abuse Gattis now says he suffered as a child, and that the courts did not have a full appreciation of the physical abuse.

Board members acknowledged that prosecutors were correct to harbor suspicions about some of the testimony regarding Gattis's background, and to question why he did not come forward with the extent of his sexual abuse until 2009. They also noted that Gattis did not take responsibility for intentionally killing Slay until earlier this month.

But the board concluded that Gattis was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by family members as a child, and that he had complained to medical professionals of mental illness and involuntary violent impulses more than a year before Slay's murder.

The pardons board consists of the lieutenant governor, state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state, and head judge of the Court of Chancery. Republican auditor Tom Wagner was the only member to vote against commutation for Gattis.

Markell has supported the imposition of the death penalty in the past. As state treasurer, he sat on pardons boards that rejected clemency requests for condemned killers Tanzil Hameen in 2001 and Brian Steckel in 2005. Both were executed.

The makeup of the board has changed since those cases were heard. The board, which consists of four Democrats and one Republican, indicated in its Gattis opinion that at least one member is philosophically opposed to the death penalty. It said that member fundamentally believes that once a prisoner has been "incapacitated" and poses no threat to society, there is no moral justification for killing him.

The board also said the four members voting for commutation for Gattis were concerned that Delaware does not require a unanimous jury verdict for a death sentence.

Some members also were concerned about sentencing disparities in murder cases, noting that defendants in other clemency requests arising from domestic disputes that ended in murder not only have been permitted to live, but likely will be released from prison eventually.