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Virginia to Execute Man With a Mental Health Condition

Governor McAuliffe Should Commute Death Sentence

The death chamber shown at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas September 29, 2010. © 2010 Reuters

Tomorrow the US state of Virginia is slated to execute William Charles Morva, a man with a serious mental health condition. Attorneys for Morva have asked Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to commute his sentence and instead give him life without parole. A group of state lawmakers, two United Nations human rights experts, and others have made the same plea.

Morva was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2008. Following an armed robbery attempt two years earlier, Morva was taken to a hospital for a sprained ankle and wrist. While there, he assaulted a sheriff’s deputy, taking his gun, and then shot and killed hospital security guard Derrick McFarland. He fled the hospital, and the next day, shot and killed Eric Sutphin, a Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputy who was responding to a report of a disheveled man in the woods. During the trial, Morva was diagnosed with a “personality disorder.”

However, Morva was re-evaluated in 2014, and was diagnosed by a forensic psychiatrist to have a “delusional disorder” – a psychosis and much more severe mental health condition where someone can’t tell the difference between delusions and reality. His attorneys have asked that the sentence be commuted, since the jury was unaware of this fact.

While McAuliffe has stated that he is personally against the death penalty, as governor he has overseen the executions of two men, Alfredo Prieto in 2015, and Ricky Gray in January of this year. In April, McAuliffe did commute a death sentence for the first time, that of Ivan Teleguz, citing concerns that the jury had “acted on false information” when deciding his sentence.

The death penalty should be abolished. It is inherently cruel, and an execution’s finality makes the patterns of error, prejudice, and bias that pervade so many capital cases impossible to correct. Morva’s case is far from unique as a reminder of how persistent those concerns are. Just as important, the debate around his sentence lays bare yet again how impossible it is to define with any kind of moral clarity the precise categories of people who can and cannot be executed.

McAuliffe should commute Morva’s death sentence because it is the right thing to do. Just as important, he should follow through on his own stated principles and work hard to secure an end to the death penalty in Virginia. 

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