Lawyers for Seriously Mentally Ill Virginia Death-Row Prisoner Ask Governor for Clemency

Lawyers for William Morva (pictured), a seriously mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from a delusional disorder that leaves him unable to distinguish his delusions from reality, has petitioned Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe seeking clemency from his scheduled July 6, 2017 execution. Morva's lawyers say that he has suffered for years from "a serious psychotic disorder" that includes beliefs that "local law enforcement and the Administration of former President George W. Bush conspired to harass him, to arrest him unjustly, and to incarcerate him in jail conditions that would cause his death." He also believes that he suffers from "a life-threatening gastrointestinal condition that require[s] him to spend hours every day on a toilet and adhere to a diet of raw meat, berries, and pinecones." Morva was sentenced to death for killing a hospital security guard and a corporal with the sheriff's office in an escape from custody. Because Morva was misdiagnosed with a personality disorder before trial, his jury was never told about his serious mental illness and the role that it played in the murders. According to Morva's lawyers, after having been taken to a hospital for evaluation of his complaint of having been injured falling from a bunk in an overcrowded county jail, Morva falsely believed that his life was in imminent danger and that he needed to escape. Morva has been on death row since 2008, but has never received treatment for his mental illness, although, his lawyers say, "administration of anti-psychotic medications has proven successful in controlling symptoms of people similarly affected.” His mental condition has continued to deteriorate in his time on death row. The psychiatrist who diagnosed Morva considered his prognosis for successful treatment to be “very promising,” in part because Morva’s older brother was successfully treated for a psychotic disorder when he was around Morva's current age. Virginia Governors James Gilmore and Timothy Kaine cited concerns about serious mental illness when they commuted the death sentences of Calvin Swann and Percy Walton. Governor McAuliffe is out of the country through June 30, but a spokesman says he will review the clemency petition and make an announcement when the review is complete.  [UPDATE: Governor McAuliffe denied clemency to Morva on July 6 and Virginia executed him that night. McAuliffe also denied a request for a temporary reprieve after Morva's lawyers learned of problems with the execution of Ricky Gray. An independent autopsy report suggested that Gray had suffered an an acute pulmonary edema during his execution and had blood in his lungs while he was still breathing.]

Virginia is one of several states in which legislation has been introduced this year to create a death-penalty exemption for those who are seriously mentally ill. While the Virginia bill died in committee, similar bills have drawn diverse bipartisan support from people such as former governors Robert Taft of Ohio and IJoseph E. Kernan of Indianaformer Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody, and Dr. Frederick J. Freese, III, a psychologist and war veteran with schizophrenia. The American Bar Association (ABA), in conjunction with the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, have long called for exempting persons with serious mental illness from the death penalty, and in December 2016, published a white paper outlining why those with mental illness should not face the death penalty.

(M. Gangloff, "Morva attorneys ask governor to stop execution," Roanoke Times, June 20, 2017; V. Freeman Jr., "Attorneys petition Governor McAuliffe to stop execution of William Morva," WTVR.com, June 20, 2017; A. Marimow, "He’s a killer set to die. But his mental illness has set off a new death penalty battle.," Washington Post, June 24, 2017.)  See Clemency and Mental Illness