Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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Virginia governor declines to halt execution of killer whose mental illness spurred clemency bid

William Morva
William Morva
William C. Morva is scheduled to be executed Thursday night in Virginia, after supporters failed to convince Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that Morva’s mental illness merited clemency and a life sentence in the 2006 murders of a sheriff’s deputy and an unarmed hospital security guard.

McAuliffe, who is personally opposed to the death penalty, said he would not stop the execution because he is convinced Morva received a fair trial. The governor also said in a statement that the jury was fully informed about Morva’s mental condition.

“After extensive review and deliberation, I do not find sufficient cause in Mr. Morva’s petition or case records to justify overturning the will of the jury that convicted and sentenced him,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

As governor, McAuliffe blocked a scheduled execution in April, but has allowed two others to proceed.

In seeking clemency, Morva’s attorneys said the jurors who sentenced him to death were not told about the severity of his mental illness. His case has become part of a larger national effort to eliminate capital punishment for people with illnesses like Morva’s delusional disorder.

His clemency effort garnered support from local, national and international advocates pressing to stop states from executing people with severe mental illnesses. Amnesty International, the ACLU of Virginia and mental health organizations delivered more than 30,000 petitions to McAuliffe asking him to commute Morva’s death sentence.

More than two-dozen members of the Virginia General Assembly and three of the state’s representatives in Congress, all Democrats, also asked McAuliffe to block the execution. And on Wednesday, one of the daughter’s of the slain sheriff’s deputy said she too had written to McAuliffe supporting clemency for the man who killed her father.

Morva is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 9 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center, about 160 miles south of Washington.

Lawmakers in eight states, including Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee, have introduced bills that would make people with severe mental illness ineligible for the death penalty. Advocates say capital punishment was not intended for people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality.

The legislative proposals address punishment, not guilt or innocence. The Supreme Court has already said people with intellectual disabilities and juveniles may not be executed because of their diminished culpability.

After years of appeals in state and federal court, the high court declined to take up Morva’s case in February.

Elizabeth Morva, his mother, has expressed remorse for her son’s actions and said that he has not received the psychological treatment he needed.

“If someone had intervened sooner, I truly believe William would never have killed those two men,” his mother wrote in an affidavit in support of her son. “But I cannot change the past. I can only say that I am so sorry and ask that my son please be spared.”

Mary K. Pettitt, the Montgomery County, Va., Commonwealth Attorney, who helped prosecute Morva, told McAuliffe that the jury had sufficient information about his mental health and had rendered a fair verdict.

“To assert some 10 years later that all three of the original experts were wrong is absurd,” Pettitt wrote in a letter to McAuliffe. “With enough time and motivation one can always find an expert to say what you want to hear but that doesn’t mean it is true or accurate.”

In her statement on Wednesday, Sutphin’s daughter asked for privacy for the families of the victims and said she was speaking only for herself in advocating for clemency.

Years before the shootings, Morva’s friends and family were concerned about his mental health following his decision to drop out of Blacksburg High School. He 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. Morva’s daily routine became consumed by unusual habits — eating large amounts of raw meat and spending hours in the bathroom.

His mental health deteriorated further when he was locked up for a year in jail awaiting trial on attempted robbery charges. Morva was convinced that someone at the prison was trying to kill him and intentionally withholding medical care, he told his mother in a series of phone calls from jail on recorded lines.

In August 2006, a deputy escorted Morva to Montgomery Regional Hospital for treatment of minor injuries. In the bathroom, Morva knocked the deputy unconscious, took his gun and then shot McFarland, the unarmed security guard. The next day, he shot Sutphin, the decorated sheriff’s deputy, who was out searching for Morva on a wooded trail near the campus of Virginia Tech.

The jury that sentenced Morva to death in 2008 heard from doctors who diagnosed him with a personality disorder similar to schizophrenia. They noted his odd behavior and that Morva’s maternal grandmother had been treated for schizophrenia in the 1950s.

But the doctors told jurors that Morva was not delusional — a determination that later was refuted by another doctor and Morva’s new team of lawyers.

Morva’s diagnosis of delusional disorder came during the appeals process and after a more in-depth psychiatric evaluation. Morva’s attorney Dawn Davison of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center has said Morva’s delusions prevented him from understanding the crimes he committed.

Morva has not accepted in-person visits from his lawyers and his mother for years. He insists they are part of the conspiracy to kill him.

“It is appalling that the jury never learned the full extent of Mr. Morva’s mental disability,” said James Clark of Amnesty International USA, one of the groups involved in the clemency campaign.

“As more and more states stop using the death penalty, Governor McAuliffe must recognize that this cruel punishment should be consigned to the history books forever.”

Despite his opposition to capital punishment, McAuliffe has allowed two executions to go forward. Ricky Gray was the last Virginia inmate to be executed in January for killing two young girls in a brutal 2006 home invasion.

In April, McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz in a murder-for-hire case because of what the governor described as a flawed sentencing process.

Source: Washington Post, July 6, 2017

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