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

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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: William Morva's execution will not equal justice

William Morva
William Morva
On July 6, Virginia is scheduled to carry out its 3rd execution under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, and 113th since 1976. The inmate, William C. Morva, was convicted of fatally shooting 2 men - a deputy sheriff and a hospital security guard - in 2006. His guilt is not in question. What is less clear is if jurors would have sentenced him to death had they been aware of the true extent of his mental illness.

At varying points, Morva reportedly believed that he was meant to lead a distant indigenous tribe; that he was gifted with special powers to carry out an unidentified quest; that he was unjustly persecuted by local officials and the administration of President George W. Bush; and that his real name was Nemo, which is Latin for "nobody." These are not signs of a rational mind, but rather one afflicted with debilitating mental illness. A mental-health expert who assessed him after his conviction diagnosed him with delusional disorder, a serious psychotic condition similar to schizophrenia.

We have previously written that capital punishment is dehumanizing. But the execution of a man suffering from severe mental illness is an act of particular barbarism - especially if his condition may have been misdiagnosed in trial. According to Morva's attorneys, the mental-health experts who provided statements to the jury did not receive his full case history and diagnosed him with a personality disorder rather than psychosis.

Despite his personal opposition to the death penalty, McAuliffe is committed to upholding Virginia law, a stance we understand and respect. He commuted a death sentence in April, however, after he found flaws in the sentencing process of Ivar Teleguz. His predecessors - then-Gov. James Gilmore, R, and now-Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. - had granted clemency on grounds of mental illness. Morva's case raises many of the same questions and adds fodder to the national effort to abolish capital punishment for people with serious mental illnesses.

McAuliffe should look favorably on the petition for clemency before him and commute Morva's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He should also ensure that Morva receives the mental-health treatment he so obviously needs. The killing of 2 devoted public servants is a tragedy, but the state of Virginia will not right this wrong by getting more blood on its hands.

Source: The Washington Post, Editorial, July 2, 2017


Hey Gov. McAuliffe: A Democratic standard-bearer would grant Morva mercy


In 2017, The Times They Are A-Changin' is more than just a prophetic Bob Dylan song (and album) riffing on social change, it's a prudent observation about waning public support for the death penalty - especially among Democrats.

Gone are the blood-lusting, big-haired days of 1992, when Bill Clinton was first-elected. Most forget, Clinton prevailed despite the spectacle of his unprecedented and unbecoming posturing on the death penalty; cultivating a "tough on crime" persona, "Bubba" returned to Arkansas from the campaign trail in a cynical, self-serving move, to oversee the troubled execution of a brain-damaged 42-year-old black man, Ricky Ray Rector.

Nowadays, democratic distaste for the death penalty is blowing in a suffocating, sepulchral wind; currently it threatens to engulf, and perhaps darken, the political future of Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe has the thankless job no human in civilized society should - he has to to decide whether to grant clemency to William Morva - a severely mentally-ill man scheduled to be executed on July 6.

McAuliffe insists he's personally opposed to the death penalty, but he has also vowed that he's willing to impose it, which he did, recently, allowing the execution of Ricky Gray to proceed in January. In fact, McAuliffe bears the ignominious distinction of being the only sitting Democratic governor to allow an execution to go forward - both Gray's and the execution of Alfredo Prieto in 2015 - a tangible marker when it comes to newfound Democratic dissatisfaction with the death penalty - and a sign that the times, truly, they are a-changin'.

If, from the tangled morass surrounding the death penalty generally, and Morva's case, specifically - Governor McAuliffe is to emerge from his life or death decision a standard-bearer of modern-day democratic values - a truly viable candidate for Commander-in-Chief in 2020 (and beyond) - there is only 1 action he can take, that he must take: McAuliffe must spare Mr. Morva.

Last year, even before the 2016 Democratic Party platform broke with Hillary Clinton's indefensible stance against abolishing capital punishment, political reporter Kira Lerner asked what the smart money today suggests is purely rhetorical, "Is Hillary Clinton the Last Democratic Presidential Candidate to Support the Death Penalty?" Lerner observed: "Being opposed to capital punishment is no longer a handicap for Democratic presidential candidates; in fact, taking a strong stance against the death penalty may even be beneficial in both a primary and general election. And experts say we can expect to see a time in the near future when support for the practice could actually be a liability."

Glancing about the country there is plenty of evidence suggesting Lerner's prognostication is a fait accompli. For example, in May, in Philadelphia, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner won the democratic nomination for District Attorney despite vowing to never seek the death penalty. Likewise, in Denver, Colorado, Democratic prosecutor Beth McCann was elected despite making a similar pledge. And, in Orlando, Florida, the elected chief prosecutor, Aramis Ayala, also a Democrat, courageously swore-off the death penalty, starting a legal firestorm that smolders still. In California, and even in traditional, accepting hotbeds of capital punishment, like Alabama, democratic acceptance of the death penalty has plummeted.

In fact, the writing isn't just on the wall for Democratic candidates when it comes to their electorate's disenchantment with the death penalty, it's in a cogent oped written by former New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson. In "I carried out the death penalty as governor. I hope others put it to rest," Richardson argues, "[t]o effectively represent the interests of citizens, and protect our nation's role as a global leader, a new generation of policymakers and politicians must put the death penalty to rest once and for all."

Starting with Mr. Morva's untreated, severely debilitating mental illness that was directly involved in the crimes he committed, there are many good, even honorable reasons, for Governor McAuliffe to spare Mr. Morva's life. And then, as Bob Dylan might wryly sing, there's politics. So, come senators, congressmen - and yes, you too, Governor McAuliffe - please heed the call. Don't stand in the doorway. Don't block up the hall. For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled ... For the times, they are a-changin'.

Source: CounterPunch, Stephen Cooper, June 2, 2017. Mr. Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.

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