Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Virginia executes William Morva

William Morva
William C. Morva was executed by injection Thursday night for the capital murders of an unarmed security guard and a deputy sheriff during an escape in Montgomery County in 2006.

Morva, 35, a former Chesterfield County resident whose lawyers said suffered from a chronic psychotic disorder, was pronounced dead at the Greensville Correctional Center.

The execution occurred without any complications, according to Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Corrections.

At 8:59 p.m., a curtain barring the view of witnesses into the execution chamber was opened. Morva was lying strapped onto the gurney, with IV lines in his arms and was breathing deeply.

His face could not be seen. He would raise his head slightly and then drop it every few seconds. At 9 p.m., Warden Eddie Pearson read the death warrant, then asked him, "Mr. Morva, do you have any last words?"

"No," Morva replied.

The 1st of 3 drugs was administered. His deep breathing and apparent nodding continued. At 9:03 p.m., he appeared to be speaking and made a loud sound like a hic-up. His diaphragm contracted sharply several times. He then grew still. At 9:05 p.m., an execution team member checked to make sure he was unconscious before the second and third drugs were administered.

At 9:14 p.m., a physician checked for a heartbeat with a stethoscope. Morva was pronounced dead at 9:15 p.m.

On Aug. 20, 2006, while in jail awaiting trial on attempted robbery and other charges, Morva was taken to the Montgomery Regional Hospital for treatment of minor injuries. He assaulted a deputy who was escorting him, knocking him unconscious and taking his handgun.

Morva encountered Derrick McFarland, 32, a hospital security guard and shot him in the face. The next day Morva shot Eric Sutphin, 40, a deputy sheriff who was searching for him, in the back of the head. Morva was convicted of capital murder, assault and battery of a law enforcement officer and escape by force.

His legal appeals exhausted, Morva's lawyers filed a clemency petition with Gov. Terry McAuliffe asking that the death sentence be commuted to life. They argued that the jury did not know of his serious mental illness, diagnosed by a forensic psychiatrist years after his trial.

In a statement released at 2:17 p.m. Gov. Terry McAuliffe turned down Morva's petition and sided with state officials who said Morva's pre-trial diagnoses by experts were valid and that the jury considered them and nevertheless sentenced Morva to death.

"These experts thoroughly evaluated Mr. Morva and testified to the jury that, while he may have personality disorders, he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences," said the governor.

He added, “We also consulted with the Department of Corrections, whose mental health staff have monitored him weekly and assessed him quarterly for the past nine years and have never reported any evidence of delusional disorder or severe mental illness."

Morva's clemency petition divided at least one of the victims' families -- a daughter of Sutphin asking McAuliffe to grant clemency, while Sutphin's mother hoped to see the death penalty carried out for the sake of justice.

On Wednesday, 2 experts with the United Nations urged McAuliffe not to execute Morva. His lawyers said Thursday that more than 34,000 people signed petitions backing clemency and 28 state legislators and 3 members of Congress also supported clemency.

Bill Farrar, with the ACLU of Virginia, said the organization was saddened by McAuliffe's decision "to allow the execution of William Morva, a mentally ill man, despite strong appeals for clemency from state, national and international mental health and human rights advocates.

"This is more evidence that the death penalty must be repealed in Virginia, and that until that happens the layers of secrecy surrounding it must be peeled back," he said.

Before Morva's execution, a group of 10 people protesting the death penalty gathered outside the prison, including the Rev. Hilary Streever. She said she knew Morva when she attended Virginia Tech and that he was odd, but kind. They met in a coffee shop a couple years before his armed robbery.

"He was a little strange and from there he grew stranger," said Streever, who now lives in Richmond.

"The Episcopal Church is against the death penalty," she said. "I've always been against it religiously, but this is my first personal connection to it."

The Rev. Lauren Ramseur, a member of the board for the Virginians Against the Death Penalty, said she's led one other vigil for an execution. "We are here to witness for life and hope," she said.

"I'm opposed to the death penalty in any case," Ramseur said. "I think it is particularly wrong to murder someone who's sick because he acted out of his mental illness and we should have compassion."

Donald Triplett III drove six hours from North Carolina to stand with the candlelight vigil in protest of the execution. He had also protested Arkansas' use of the death penalty in April on the steps of the governor's mansion and participated in a vigil in Washington, D.C.

He said he didn't expect to make the drive, believing McAuliffe would grant clemency.

"He made some statement that he respects the rule of law, but respect for the rule of law is one thing. Capital punishment is murder," he said.

Executions are carried out in "L-Unit," or the death house, at the Greensville Correctional Center.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said Thursday that family members of the victims had expressed an interest in attending the execution. Such witnesses view the proceedings from a separate area and not with official citizen witnesses and media representatives.

Morva was set to meet with clergy on Thursday, but not family.

Far less of Morva’s execution was to be visible to witnesses for Morva's execution than prior ones.

In February, the Department of Corrections adopted a new policy whereby a curtain blocking the view of the death chamber from a glassed-in witness area will not be opened until the IV lines are in place and the execution is ready to be carried out.

In prior executions citizen and media witnesses could watch the inmate led into the chamber and strapped onto the gurney or into the electric chair. Only the placing of the IV lines was blocked from view by a drawn curtain.

Problems were encountered when placing the IV lines in Ricky Javon Gray on Jan. 18, delaying his execution for an inordinate length of time. The department said the changes were made in part to reduce stress on the staff who carry out the executions and bring Virginia’s procedure in line with those of other states.

Critics, including the ACLU of Virginia, have decried the increased secrecy that also prevents making public the pharmacy concocting drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection.

Virginia uses a 3-drug procedure. The 1st one is intended to render the inmate unconscious, the 2nd to cause paralysis, and the 3rd stops the heart. 2 of the drugs, midazolam and potassium chloride, were made by a licensed compounding pharmacy in Virginia.

Morva becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Virginia and the 113th person executed in Virginia since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976 -- the 2nd most among states that have the death penalty. Virginia resumed executions in 1982.

Morva becomes the 14th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1456th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rick Halperin, July 6, 2017

Pathologist says Ricky Gray's autopsy suggests problems with Virginia's execution procedure

Lawyers for William C. Morva unsuccessfully sought to delay his execution Thursday night following the reported concerns from an expert about Ricky Gray’s execution by injection in January.

An article published in The Guardian on Wednesday cited a review of Gray’s autopsy report by Dr. Mark Edgar, associate director of bone and soft tissue pathology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Edgar concluded that something appears to have gone wrong under Virginia’s three-drug method.

Edgar said a frothy liquid found in Gray’s upper airways indicated that he suffered an acute pulmonary edema and that blood found on his lips indicated that blood entered Gray’s lungs while he was still breathing. The Guardian reported that Edgar could not be certain about the cause of the edema, but said it would be similar to drowning.

Reached Friday, Edgar told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I cannot know how the executioners intended or expected the drugs to work. If they expected them to cause rapid and uncomplicated death ... without the possibility of a lingering sense of panic and terror, then they did not get what they expected.

“The anatomic changes described in Ricky Gray’s lungs are more often seen in the aftermath of a sarin gas attack than in a routine hospital autopsy. This is of concern especially given the fact that midazolam is not an anesthetic, but a sedative often used for medical procedures requiring conscious sedation and the issue that the compounded drugs used in this case may have lacked potency or been impure,” he said.

Gray’s family obtained the official post-execution autopsy, The Guardian reported. Virginia’s medical examiner’s office conducts autopsies of executed inmates.

“This way of dying is intolerable. You can’t control your breathing — it is terrible,” said Edgar, according to The Guardian. “When it is this severe, you can experience panic and terror and, if the individual was in any way aware of what was happening to them, it would be unbearable.”

Because of the unavailability of manufactured drugs for executions, Virginia uses compounded midazolam and compounded potassium chloride — made by an undisclosed Virginia pharmacy or pharmacies — as the first and third drugs in executions. According to lawyers for Gray and Morva, Virginia is the only state to use a combination of two compounded chemicals in lethal injections.

State law bars the disclosure of the pharmacies making the drugs.

The first drug is intended to render the inmate unconscious, the second to stop breathing and the third to stop the heart.

Rob Lee, one of Morva’s lawyers, said McAuliffe was asked for a temporary reprieve at 5 p.m. Thursday, less than three hours after the governor turned down Morva’s bid for clemency.

“The reprieve was requested after new information came to light raising concerns that Virginia’s lethal injection protocol did not act as intended, and therefore had resulted in a lingering and tortuous death,” Lee said in a prepared statement.

He added, “We believed a reprieve was appropriate to allow time for further investigation to ensure that the Commonwealth carries out future executions — including Mr. Morva’s — in a manner that avoids unnecessary pain and suffering.”

A McAuliffe spokeman confirmed Friday that the governor denied the request for a temporary reprieve.

“Earlier in the day, he had stated his intention to allow the execution to proceed without his intervention. That statement was based on his review of the case as well as his confidence in the protocol the Department of Corrections used to carry out this sentence,” said Brian Coy, the spokesman.

The Department of Corrections and other state officials have said they are confident in the purity and efficacy of the periodically tested chemicals used in executions.

Morva’s 9 p.m. execution at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt on Thursday, according to the Department of Corrections, was carried out without complications, and he was pronounced dead at 9:15 p.m.

After the midazolam was administered Thursday, Morva made a loud noise that sounded similar to a hiccup, and there were several sharp contractions of his abdomen.

The department said Gray’s execution in January was complicated by difficulties in placing IV lines. The procedure, which usually takes a few minutes, took more than half an hour.

Morva was executed for killing two people during an escape in Montgomery County in 2006. Gray, who murdered seven people in seven days in Richmond in 2006, was executed for the capital murders of two young sisters.

Source: Richmond Times Dispatch, Frank Green, July 7, 2017

Statement by the European Union spokesperson on the execution in Virginia, US

BRUXELLES - The execution of William Charles Morva in the US State of Virginia on 6 July 2017, in spite of the indications that he suffered from severe mental illness, is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and to the minimum standards set forth according to international human rights law.

We regret that the numerous calls for clemency, including those of the EU, went unheeded.

Death penalty remains an unacceptable denial of human rights and dignity and fails to act as a deterrent to crime. The European Union is strongly and unequivocally opposed to the use of capital punishment under all circumstances and aims at its universal abolition.

Source: European Union, External Action, July 7, 2017

Virginia executes inmate after governor rejects delusional diagnosis; ABA had raised concerns

The state of Virginia executed William Morva on Thursday night after the governor rejected clemency petition claims that the inmate suffered from a delusional disorder and was unable to understand the consequences of his actions.

A corrections spokeswoman said the execution took place without any complications, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. Morva, 35, was executed for killing a hospital security guard and deputy sheriff during a 2006 escape that began in a hospital where he was being treated for injuries. The Associated Press also covered the execution.

ABA President Linda A. Klein had written a letter to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe urging him to consider evidence that Morva had a significant history of severe mental illness. “It is for that reason that the ABA has concerns about whether the death penalty is appropriate in his case,” Klein wrote.

The ABA takes the position that individuals should not be executed if they have severe mental illness at the time of their crime or at the time of execution.

McAuliffe explained his decision in a statement. The governor cited findings by three mental health experts appointed by the trial court that Morva may have personality disorders, but they didn’t prevent him from understanding the consequences of his actions. McAuliffe also said mental health staff at the prison who monitored Morva for nine years had not reported evidence of a delusional disorder or severe mental illness.

Virginia no longer allows witnesses to view the execution chamber until the IV lines are in place. The Times-Dispatch reports that Morva was breathing deeply and nodding both before and after the first drug was administered. At one point, the newspaper reports, Morva “appeared to be speaking and made a loud sound like a hiccup. His diaphragm contracted sharply several times. He then grew still.”

The final drugs were administered after Morva was checked to make sure he was unconscious.

Hat tip the Marshall Project.

Source: ABA, Debra Cassens Weiss, July 7, 2017

William Morva killed two men. His execution shows no death penalty case is easy.

William Morva
William Morva
Last night, Virginia executed William Morva for the 2006 murders of a sheriff’s deputy and a hospital security guard. Morva killed his victims while serving time in a county jail for attempted armed robbery. He had premeditated his escape.

Few people wrote about the case in the weeks leading up to Morva’s execution. I suspect that’s because as death penalty cases go, this one at first blush seems pretty sound. There’s no doubt that Morva killed two men. And there’s little doubt that he is a potential threat to public safety.

But there is no such thing as a routine execution. A criminal-justice system built and run by flawed human beings will always be flawed. Because an execution is the ultimate punishment, and because it’s irreversible, every state killing presents some profound moral quandaries. This one is no different.

Mental illness

Morva suffered from severe mental illness. In his statement denying Morva clemency, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) pointed out that while the three mental health professionals who evaluated Morva at trial found signs of mental illness, all three found that “he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences.” But as Liliana Segura reported for the Intercept, it appears that those evaluations were based on incomplete reviews of Morva’s history. (Disclosure: Segura is my wife.) In interviews with Morva’s friends and family, along with reviews of letters he has written over the years, Segura paints a portrait of a man who was spiraling into delusional behavior well before he committed his crimes.

According to friends who knew him well, Morva began acting strangely in his late teens. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, Morva told friends that he was on a special team of people tasked with saving the world. There’s evidence that Morva was abused, at least psychologically. His father apparently made him wear dresses to school to “toughen” him up. A man who described himself as Morva’s best friend told Segura that when they were roommates, Morva would spend hours in the bathroom, a strange ritual that eventually caused the friend to ask Morva to move out. Morva said all the time in the bathroom was necessary to his digestive issues. He began a bizarre diet of pine cones, raw meat, and cheese. His first arrest came after he was found on the floor, pants-less, in a Virginia Tech campus bathroom.

When his father died, Morva showed up at the funeral barefoot. The Post’s Ann Marimow reported Friday, Morva often “went barefoot in winter, sometimes slept in the woods and told people he had special powers and was in training to fight in the wild on behalf of Native Americans.” This was all before Morva had committed any serious crime. Which is to say this was not feigned behavior aimed at escaping the death penalty. Yet the jurors who sentenced Morva to die heard almost none of it.

Morva’s arrest for attempted armed robbery came in 2005, when he and another man tried to rob a convenience store, apparently due to Morva’s delusional belief that his mother was destitute after his father’s death. The effort was laughably inept. The men gave up on the heist when they couldn’t get the door open. Morva didn’t steal a single item and didn’t point his gun at anyone. Morva was then kept in a crowded county jail for more than a year. His mental illness went diagnosed and untreated. As one of Morva’s friends told Segura, “We were like, ‘Look, Will is not mentally stable . . . If you guys throw him in the middle of this institution, it’s like a time bomb.” And it was. After a year in jail, Morva attempted escape, which resulted in the two murders for which he was executed.

Since then, other mental health professionals have told Morva’s attorneys and the courts that he suffered from severe delusional disorder and that his illness played a direct role in his crimes. Morva believed that if he stayed in jail, he would eventually die. That particular delusion turned out to be prophetic.

The U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of “mentally retarded” people, but has been much less clear about those with mentally illness. Morva’s case seems particularly tragic, because his time in a crowded jail almost certainly exacerbated his untreated illness, and it likely contributed to the desperation that motivated his crimes.


Back in 1992, another southern, Democratic governor with national political ambitions signed off on the execution of a mentally ill man. Ricky Ray Rector had effectively lobotomized himself during a suicide attempt. His mental state was such that during his last meal, he refused to eat a slice of pecan pie, telling corrections officials he was ” saving it for later.”

The parallels between Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe are striking, not least because the two are longtime friends, and McAuliffe has raised millions of dollars for both Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Morva’s execution also comes just as former Clinton strategist Mark Penn co-wrote a widely disparaged op-ed in the New York Times praising Clinton’s law-and-order credentials and urging Democrats to take a tougher position on crime.)

There are some key differences. Clinton was an outspoken death-penalty supporter, and he made a point to leave his presidential campaign to oversee Rector’s execution, a shameless display of political grandstanding. McAuliffe hasn’t yet decided to run for president, and he claims to be opposed to capital punishment.

But the fact that McAuliffe didn’t exploit Morva’s death the way Clinton exploited Rector’s doesn’t make Morva any less dead, and it doesn’t make McAuliffe’s decision any less political. In Virginia, there are no clemency boards or panels in death penalty cases. The decision to commute a death sentence is solely the governor’s, which of course makes it makes that decision inescapably political.

If you’re morally opposed to the death penalty, it’s hard to see how you could look at Morva’s deterioration — and the state’s role in abetting that deterioration — and determine that this is the sort of cold-blooded killer for whom the death penalty was designed. Morva’s prosecutor has dismissed the more thorough evaluations of his mental condition as little more than the opinions of doctors hired by a desperate defense team. But Morva’s trial jury never heard the stories of Morva’s decline that his friends and family described to both Segura and Morva’s new legal team. At the very least, it would seem that his jury was asked to sentence him without being given a complete picture of what had happened to him. One would think an opponent of the death penalty such as McAuliffe would be troubled by this.

And yet Morva killed a security guard and a police officer. In a political climate where law enforcement groups and conservative law-and-order types continue to push a “war on cops” narrative, granting clemency to Morva would have taken some real political courage — courage McAuliffe apparently lacks.

The decision to execute ought to be insulated from politics as much as it possibly can be. The Virginia system virtually guarantee that politics will drive the governor’s actions.


Virginia is one of three states that executes the condemned with a three-drug cocktail that includes the drug midazolam, a sedative in the benzodiazepine family of drugs that was never intended to be used in executions. Defenders of the cocktail say midazolam renders the inmate unconscious and blocks him or her from feeling pain as the two other drugs are administered to stop the heart and to stop breathing. The problem is that there’s no way of knowing if midazolam actually blocks the pain of those procedures or simply renders the inmate paralyzed and unable to show signs of suffering. Critics say the drug is a sedative, not an anesthetic. (The FDA does not approve use of the drug as anesthetic.) A series of horrific botched executions, most notably Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, provided growing evidence that the critics were right.

In 2015, the Supreme Court gave its okay to the drug in the Richard Glossip case out of Oklahoma. In the majority opinion, Samuel Alito wrote that the Eighth Amendment does not require a pain-free death, and that it was up to a prisoner to demonstrate that a method of execution would cause excessive pain. (The majority also concluded that Glossip didn’t succeed in doing so.) Perversely, Alito also ruled that it is up to the prisoners themselves to suggest less painful methods of execution.

As Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent, Alito’s opinion also relied on the opinions of an expert witness for the state of Oklahoma whose only citations to back up his argument that midazolam sufficiently anesthetized the condemned was a fact sheet from the drug’s manufacturer and a printout from the website drugs.com — and even those didn’t really back up his claims. It would also later be revealed that the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office made false claims about the drug’s suppliers in its briefs to the court. (The Oklahoma AG at the time was Scott Pruitt, now the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.)

To insist that the use of midazolam is “humane” despite not knowing whether the drug truly anesthetizes the condemned or merely renders them unable to indicate that they’re being tortured to death is a good indication that for death penalty supporters, “humaneness” is not about the experience of the people we execute but the experience of those who witness and participate in executions. The methods of execution that would cause the least amount of pain and suffering for the condemned– such as decapitation or firing squad — are dismissed as barbaric because they actually look like executions, and that can be traumatic for witnesses and executioners. Instead, nearly all states employ a method that could easily be mistaken for a medical procedure. It sanitizes the event for the living. Never mind that it may well subject the executed to unimaginable pain.


Many death penalty states have responded to criticism of the lethal injection and how it’s administered by making the entire process less transparent. Virginia, along with several other states, has passed laws or enacted policies shielding the suppliers of execution drugs from open records laws. These states have argued that such laws are necessary to protect suppliers from possibly violent retaliation from death penalty opponents. FBI documents obtained by BuzzFeed last year show that there’s little evidence for those claims.

But isn’t just about the drug suppliers. After Virginia delayed the execution of Ricky Gray this year, apparently due to difficulty inserting an IV, the state changed its execution protocols. A curtain now prevents witnesses and media from seeing the inmate until he is fully strapped to the gurney and the IVs are in place. The window in the witness room is also closest to the inmate’s feet, making it more difficult to see his face.

Victims’ Rights

Death penalty supporters often argue that all of this focus on the suffering of the condemned distracts from the suffering of the victims and their families. But state officials often only want to hear from victims’ families when it supports the cause of capital punishment. In Morva’s case, for example, the daughter of one of his victims is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, and pleaded with McAuliffe to spare Morva’s life.

Of course, prosecutors bring cases on behalf of the community, not on behalf of victims (though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise). Yet while politicians and prosecutors are eager to give victims’ families the spotlight when they’re demanding death, when they advocate mercy they’re often denied a platform. Back in 2014, a Colorado prosecutor sought to block the parents of a murdered man from testifying in the killer’s sentencing phase because they planned to plead with the jury to spare the defendant’s life. Just this month, the mother of a murder victim wrote a column for a Florida newspaper about her frustration in trying to persuade the prosecutor to avoid the death penalty, not just to show mercy for the killer, but also to spare her unnecessary grief.

I didn’t want the death penalty back in 2006 when the murder occurred. I knew what lay ahead for my family if a death sentence was handed down. No one listened to me, though. The prosecutor stubbornly pushed forward with the death penalty. All the pain and uncertainty I predicted with the death penalty sadly has come true.
Still, no one is listening to me. If he wanted, the State Attorney for Brevard County, Phil Archer, could decide to accept a life without parole sentence, and this 11-year nightmare for my family would be over. So far, though, he is determined to seek the death penalty, despite my and other family members’ wishes to the contrary. I also hear Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott praising the death penalty, calling it “justice” for murder victims’ families. I have called his office to share my story, but he ignores surviving family members like myself opposed to the death penalty.

In the end, if you just happened to gaze at the broad strokes in the Morva case, you could be forgiven for not paying it further attention. After all, this was about a man who killed a guard and a deputy while trying to escape his incarceration for an attempted armed robbery. But when you’re handing down the punishment of state-sanctioned killing, there are very few easy cases. If there’s one thing we can say for certain about the death penalty, it’s that it’s reserved for the most culpable, the most brutal, and against whom there is the most incriminating evidence — the worst of the worst, and the slam dunk cases. More typically, it’s administered to those who didn’t accept a plea to implicate the more culpable parties, those who weren’t provided with an adequate defense, those who happen to live in a jurisdiction with an aggressive DA, or those who, like William Morva, suffered from an untreated mental illness.

Some cases are harder than others. But there are just too many problems, contradictions and injustices endemic to the death penalty for there to ever be any easy ones. [DPN is of the opinion that there should be no death penalty at all.]

Source: The Washington Post, Radley Balko, July 7, 2017. Mr. Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces." Follow him on Twitter @radleybalko.

Let's Save Lives, Not End Them

Stigma. Discrimination. Civil Rights. Human Rights. These are all terms we use in the mental health advocacy community to describe the challenges we face and the goals we strive for. Today, in the wake of the state of Virginia's execution of William Morva, a man with a long history of mental illness, we talk about human rights.

There is so much we don't understand about disorders of the brain, and our gravest mistake is pretending we know what we don't know. In Mr. Morva's case, questions about his mental health history were raised over and over again, and reports from various experts continuously contradicted one another. What we do know is that this man struggled with severe symptoms of mental illness for many decades. The evidence of this was strong enough that two experts from the United Nations urged Governor McAuliffe not to execute Morva, more than 34,000 people signed petitions backing clemency, and 28 state legislators and 3 members of Congress expressed support for clemency. So how and why did this happen? Especially in this state where our broken mental health system has led to such such tragedy in recent years - from a senator's son dying from mental illness due to inability to access care, to the Virginia Tech shooting - where is the awareness? Where are the solutions?

In what other area of medicine do we have this type of massive disagreement and ambiguity? Ideally, we'd have a test that could have definitively determined Morva's brain health. This raises a much broader issue: our failure to prioritize and fund brain research, which is due, at least in part, to the stigma around mental health. This stigma is evident everywhere - so much so that we often fail to see it at all.

Just this past week mental health was used, in a very public way, as the basis for name-calling and personal attacks, when Donald Trump called Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, "Psycho Joe." I think we can all agree this type of name-calling is not what we'd hope for from our Commander-in-Chief, but for a person in President Trump's position to be using such discriminatory language sets a particularly bad example.

His language is somewhat ironic, given that many are asking questions about Donald Trump's own mental health and its influence on his fitness to hold the highest office of the United States. Where is the science? Where are the tests to determine competency to hold, arguably, the most powerful position in the world? And in the horrific tragedy of this week, to determine life or death for a man who had decades of symptoms of serious mental illness?

Until we start changing attitudes we won't see the hope that's possible and lives will continue to be lost. We recently spoke with Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, a thought leader in psychology who just came out with a book with the goal of more educated awareness around mental health. Another Kind of Madness blends his early experiences of being completely shielded from his father's serious mental disorder with commentary on the need to change attitudes and enhance access to care. He explained it this way: stigma is when prejudice and negative stereotypes leads to the dehumanization of certain groups. As long as we live in a culture in which barely an eyebrow is raised when the President of the United States throws around terms like "nut job" and "psycho" when describing the mental health of his colleagues we'll keep failing to take our individual brain health seriously and we'll continue to deprioritize brain research and dehumanize those with these challenges.

And this brings us back to Mr. Morva, a case of dehumanization to the end. This chilling Facebook Live video of the press conference after his execution speaks volumes. Does revenge really help anybody? Does it advance the cause? Does it stop the violence? As Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking says, the death penalty is more about us than anything else. This case makes it clear: we as a society view mental illness as a moral failure, and this misguided belief is what allows us to justify punishing people who have a health condition.

Stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes persist, blocking us from pursuing preventative care, keeping individuals in need from getting treatment, and keeping much-needed funds out of brain research. The debate over President Trump's mental health and our inability to test it, the President's own consistent use of language that stereotypes and dehumanizes, and the execution of a man who showed clear signs of a severe brain disorder: it's all connected. In many ways, we remain in the dark ages when it comes to brain health, in our attitudes as well as our understanding of brain disorders and their impact on human behavior and cognitive functioning.

Tragic cases like William Morva's need to serve as impetus to take action now. Despite heroic efforts, his life wasn't able to be spared. Let's work to make sure that we as a society are never in the position of deciding someone's fate ever again. Let's leave saving lives to the medical community - they're best equipped for that responsibility. The responsibility of ending them, however, belongs to none of us.

Source: Commentary; Janine Francolini, Contributor Founder of the Flawless Foundation, Huffington Post, July 8, 2017

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