Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”

(Andrew Cain, McAuliffe commutes death sentence of killer found mentally incompetent to be executed, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 29, 2017; Virginia governor commutes death sentence in 1998 slaying, Associated Press, December 29, 2017; Death sentence commuted for man convicted of 1998 capital murder, NewsPlex.com, December 29, 2017; Press Release, Governor McAuliffe Commutes Sentence of Man Found Mentally Incompetent to Be Executed, Office of Governor Terry McAuliffe, December 29, 2017.) See Clemency and Mental Illness.