“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,” the Washington Post wrote about the William Morva case late last month. But that editorial, as well as one that ran in the LA Post Examiner declaring that, “There are many good, even honorable reasons, for Governor McAuliffe to spare Mr. Morva’s life,” had no effect on Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. He turned a deaf ear to pleas that Morva’s sentence be commuted to life without parole, and instead allowed him to be executed last week, July 6, for killing two people, a security guard and a sheriff’s deputy, in 2006.
We interviewed Morva’s attorney Dawn Davison in last month’s issue of the Focus, where she explained that as he entered his teens, Morva 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 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.”
Davison says that 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.”)
“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,” Davison says.
Morva’s attorneys appealed to McAuliffe to commute Morva’s sentence based on his mental illness. Tens of thousands of people from around the country and beyond signed online petitions, emailed and called the governor, and tweeted for clemency. Two United Nations representatives released a statement calling for clemency, stating, “We are deeply concerned about information we have received indicating that Mr. Morva’s original trial did not meet fair trial safeguards, which include reasonable accommodation in all stages of the process, and may therefore have breached international standards.”
But the day Morva was scheduled to be executed, McAuliffe issued a press release stating, “I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied,” and allowed the execution to go forward.
“McAuliffe’s excuse rings hollow. In Virginia, as elsewhere, the death penalty is never mandatory, and a governor may stop an execution any time he believes it is right to do so. As the Florida State Supreme Court once wrote, ‘An executive may grant a pardon for good reasons or bad, or for any reason at all, and his act is final and irrevocable,’” Austin Sarat wrote in Cognoscenti.
Gov. McAuliffe could have shown courage and empathy, and commuted Morva’s sentence to life without parole, and allowed him to get the psychiatric medications he needed, his demons at bay, of no threat to anyone. It would have been an act of mercy, and been in line with the teachings of the Catholic faith that McAuliffe purports to follow. But political calculations and personal cowardice are powerful motivations, and it appears both played a role in McAuliffe’s decision to allow this act of barbarism to go forward.