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December 01, 2017

Virginia Executes William Morva Despite Serious Mental Illness

On July 6, 2017, Virginia executed William Morva, a mentally ill man who was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two people—a hospital security guard and a sheriff’s deputy— during an escape from state custody in 2006. Although the fact of Mr. Morva’s mental illness was not in dispute, the courts and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe ultimately declined to spare Mr. Morva from execution on that basis. In denying Mr. Morva clemency, Governor McAuliffe stated, “the jury heard substantial evidence about his mental health as they prepared to sentence him [to death].” Accordingly, Governor McAuliffe concluded there was no reason for him to take the “extraordinary step of overturning” the jury’s sentence through an act of executive clemency.

When Mr. Morva escaped from state custody, he had been in jail nearly a year awaiting trial on attempted robbery charges. At that time, Mr. Morva’s mental illness was undiagnosed and untreated. According to his post-conviction attorneys, Mr. Morva was in a delusional state at the time of his escape in 2006 and believed that he would die if he remained in jail. Mr. Morva later told psychiatrists that he had life-threatening gastrointestinal issues and that a previous presidential administration had been conspiring with the police to imprison and kill him. 

Experts who examined Mr. Morva prior to trial testified that he suffered from personality disorders that resulted in “odd beliefs” but did not present evidence to the jury regarding his complex delusions or their potential relationship to the crime. During state post-conviction proceedings, attorneys at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center worked to paint a more complete picture of Mr. Morva’s mental illness. In interviews with friends, teachers, and family members, an image developed of an individual who had slowly lost touch with reality after dropping out of high school only months before graduation. According to friends, Mr. Morva’s mental health worsened after the death of his father. Mr. Morva’s postconviction counsel gathered almost 100 affidavits regarding his mental state that were later included in his state habeas petition.

The decision to deny Mr. Morva clemency came despite significant pressure from mental health advocates, state lawmakers, and attorneys. Among those who urged mercy were the daughter of one of the victims, two United Nations human rights experts, and representatives from the Hungarian embassy.

Mr. Morva’s execution comes at a time when many groups are advocating that states end the practice of executing the severely mentally ill.