“If the death penalty is for the worst of the worst, then a person whose actions are driven by an illness over which he has no control can’t be defined as being the worst of the worst. And I have a hard time believing that 12 reasonable jurors who heard that evidence would have sentenced that person to death.”
Dawn Davison is referring to her client, William Morva, who is scheduled to be executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia on July 6.
William Morva suffers from delusional disorder, a disease that makes him believe things that aren’t true. It’s a serious mental illness, similar to schizophrenia, and it caused him to commit two murders for which Virginia now wants to execute him.
Many of the people he grew up with describe William as a sweet, sensitive boy who was interested in theatre and music, and passionate about social justice. But as he grew older, he became increasingly irrational and consumed by delusions. He dropped out of high school in his senior year and eventually claimed to live in the Virginia woods. After being held in a county jail for a year awaiting trial on attempted robbery charges, his mental condition deteriorated even further. In 2006, after receiving medical treatment at a local hospital, Morva disarmed the deputy escorting him, and fatally shot a hospital security guard during his escape. The following day he shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy. He was sentenced to death in June 2008.
The jury was never fully informed of the extent of Morva’s mental illness. In fact, trial experts told jurors he simply had “odd beliefs” and that he didn’t suffer delusions. (Just before he was sentenced to death Morva told the court he was renouncing his “slave name” and was now to be called “Nemo.”)
Davison says years before he was arrested, Morva began suffering severe delusions, three major types, including a somatic delusion that he had gastrointestinal problems that required him to eat raw meat and massive amounts of dairy products. He also had persecutory delusions, where he believed that he was being targeted by the local police, who were working with the Bush Administration to persecute him. And he had grandiose delusions that he had special knowledge and powers that he was destined to use to save certain indigenous tribes, although it wasn’t clear what he was saving them from, or how he intended to do it. It was around this time that he told people he was living in the woods, going barefoot in the winter, living off the land in preparation for his “mission.”
After his arrest for attempted armed robbery, Morva spent a year in jail, and his mental state deteriorated. He believed he was dying from his physical problems, for which he was receiving no treatment, and that he was being kept in jail so that he would die. When he was taken to a local hospital, he escaped, believing his life was at stake.
“He maintains he did what anyone would have done,” Davison says. “He thinks what he did was self-defense. What he doesn’t understand or believe is that he is mentally ill, which is common with people with who suffer from psychotic delusional disorder. They believe their delusions are reality.
“There was an expert who evaluated William before the trial,” Davison says. “But the people he [the expert] talked to hadn’t been around William at the time of his crimes. He spoke to William’s sister, who hadn’t lived in the same city as William for 10 years, and his mother, who hadn’t lived in the same city in five years, so neither of them knew what he was like on a day-to-day basis then.”
Davison says the jurors at Morva’s trial were told he had a personality disorder that can’t be treated, that it’s just the way he is. “If he were treated with anti-psychotics, we have good reason to believe that his delusions may evaporate entirely,” Davison says. “I would hate people to think that there is no hope for him. But he hasn’t even been treated for his delusional disorder while in custody. Because jurors don’t know that his mental illness was what caused him to commit the crimes, he looks like a scary guy with an untreatable personality disorder.”
In fact, Morva’s mental illness is so extreme, Davison hasn’t met with him in almost five years. “I began representing William in 2009, and for years he did communicate with me and accepted my visits. Over time, though, he came to believe that I was working against him. It’s been more than two years since he accepted a visit from any of his attorneys because he believes we are purposely botching his legal case so he will die. He believes we’re in collusion with government agents. He just doesn’t trust us. So from his perspective, why would he meet with someone who is trying to harm him? This is a pattern he has repeated with friends and family members. As he learned people believed him to be mentally ill, he shut them out.”
A doctor who looked at Morva’s medical records after the trial said Morva was not competent to assist counsel and wasn’t able to rationally communicate.
Davison says she never met Morva before he was mentally ill, but that “the young man his old friends describe sounds like an amazing person. A pacifist who cared about social justice issues, who was known for hugging everybody because he was so happy to see them.
“So many lives have been destroyed,” Davison says. “I would never diminish the terrible tragedy this has been for the victims’ families, but William’s psychotic disorders have destroyed the person he once was.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled that executing the mentally ill is unconstitutional, but eight states now have legislation pending that would bar the mentally ill from being sentenced to death. The New York Times reported in April that “If enough states exempt people with such illnesses, the Supreme Court may decide that national standards of decency have evolved and follow suit.”
As the Washington Post wrote about William Morva, “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.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has the power to grant William Morva clemency based on his mental illness. If you believe that executing a mentally ill man is not only inhumane but incomprehensible, please join us in asking Gov. McAuliffe to commute Morva’s sentence to life in prison without parole. Call Gov. McAuliffe at (804) 786-2211, and sign Morva’s change.org petition.
You can read more about Morva’s case here.