Virginia To Execute Man On July 6th With Serious Mental Illness! Attorneys Urge Calls To Gov. McAuliffe For Commutation

(6-23-17) Virginia is scheduled to execute William Morva on July 6th, unless Governor Terry McAuliffe commutes his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

Morva has a debilitating mental illness called delusional disorder that makes him believe his delusions are real.

He should not be put to death.

In August 2005, Morva was arrested for attempting to rob a convenience store. The clerk testified that armed masked men approached the glass doors of the store but when the doors did not open automatically, the men ran away. Eventually, Morva was arrested and charged with a string of attempted thefts—each as ill-conceived and poorly executed as the next. The other young men with him were released on bail and received short sentences. But Morva’s mother recognized that her son was sick. She left him in a Virginia jail under the mistaken belief he would get treatment. He didn’t.

Even though his family contacted jail officials to express concern about his deteriorating mental health, he was not evaluated or treated by any psychologist or psychiatrist. His symptoms grew worse. He believed that he had been wrongly arrested. As he grew sicker and sicker, he became convinced he was being held in jail by some unknown figure who wanted to kill him.  

A year after he was arrested, he told jail officials that he needed to be taken to a hospital because he was sick. Once there, he overpowered the guard watching him and took his service weapon. While fleeing the hospital grounds, he shot and killed Derrick McFarland, an unarmed hospital security guard. The next day he fatally shot Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Sutphin who’d spotted Morva walking on a local trail. He was captured that afternoon.

Morva murdered both men. I am sorry for the families of both and do not wish to diminish their losses. Death penalty cases always involve horrific crimes.

But as the father of a son with a mental illness, I have seen how delusions can alter an individual’s reality so that they do not understand their actions. This seems to be the case with William Morva who showed signs of mental distress long before he tried to escape from jail.

One of the issues that troubles me about cases such as this is the belief that someone who has a mental illness is incapable of rational thought and actions. Ergo, if Morva could plan and carry out his escape, he knew what he was doing and, therefore, deserves to die.

This idea is nonsense. I can remember having rational conversations with my son at the breakfast table about the daily headlines while, at the same time, he was convinced that God had chosen him for a special, secret mission and he needed to rescue a former high school girlfriend who he’d gotten pregnant. None of it was true.

An even more poignant example happened in 1998 when Russell Eugene Weston, Jr., entered the U.S. Capitol and murdered Capitol Police Officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut. Weston had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia six years before the murders and had spent 53 days in a mental hospital in Montana after threatening a neighbor. He believed his neighbor was using his television satellite dish to spy on his actions and that Navy SEALs were hiding in his cornfield. Weston was rational enough to drive from Tenmile Creek in Montana to Washington D.C. without incident while under the bizarre delusion that the country was about to be annihilated by disease and legions of cannibals. A  “ruby satellite” in the Senate was the only way to prevent widespread cannibalism. Thankfully, a judge realized that Weston was incompetent and remanded him to a federal medical facility where he remains today.

William Morva’s Descent Into Madness

As is true in most cases of mental illnesses, there were warning signs about William Morva’s descent into madness.

As early as 2002, Virginia Tech police found Morva undressed on a women’s bathroom floor in one of the buildings on campus acting bizarrely. His explanation was that he needed to use the restroom. When law enforcement called his mother, she asked for a Temporary Detention Order because she was concerned about his mental wellbeing. Officers told her that a TDO was unnecessary because Morva seemed calm. As an adult, he had the right to refuse treatment and did not appear to the officers to be an imminent threat to himself or others. He later was found again lying on a bathroom floor where he had been for several hours. By this time, he had developed an obsession with having bowel movements, sometimes spending more than four hours sitting on a toilet. 

During this same time period, friends noticed that Morva was becoming inflexible, irrational, and unusual. He confided to close friends that he had been chosen to fix the world’s problems and save certain indigenous populations, and he believed he could save “the innocent ones from the destructive forces in the world.” According to an investigation by his legal team, who investigated his past, he told “one friend that he felt like he was being called by some grand entity—like a religious calling.. . . He said he was being called forth to reckon with certain negative powers.” He was convinced he possessed special, super human powers, skills, and knowledge.

By the summer of 2005, he claimed that the local Blacksburg police were conspiring with the Bush Administration against him. He believed his phones were tapped and that he was being followed. His friends realized he was ill, but didn’t know how to intervene.

Testimony at Morva’s Trial

Before his trial, Morva was examined by a Virginia psychiatrist who interviewed his mother and sister. He also was administered tests by a court appointed psychologist. The psychiatrist said Morva had a personality disorder but not a debilitating severe mental illness. After being found guilty and sentenced to death,  Morva spoke to the court:

My own attorneys and doctors, they said…that I had no empathy. That I had no compassion, which is, or course, obviously, again, complete bogus. But I don’t think that anyone in this courtroom, except for a very small handful of people, do have any empathy or compassion because I think that the people in here are sick with greed…And now I will say a few things. One, my name is not William Morva. My name is Nemo. A slave name. Two, you people, your whole society, you go and you sleep at night with these huge smiles on our faces because you get away with all the evil things that you do to each other and to the whole planet, the whole earth. You get away with it because no one stops you and you think that you will always get away with it. You believe this because you always have for a thousand years…You may kill me and that’s guaranteed. I can’t fight. There’s nothing more I can do, but there are others like me and I hope you know that and soon they’re going to get together. They’re going to sweep over your whole civilization and they’re going to wipe these smiles off your faces forever.

What wasn’t explained was that “Nemo” is Latin for “no one” or “nobody” It represents the death of self, of autonomy, and one’s social identity. Nor were jurors told Morva had self-identified with a secret, hidden tribe of indigenous people in South America. Although he described the tribe as aggressive and unwelcoming to strangers, he believed the people would recognize him by his facial features and welcome him.  

 His appellate attorneys couldn’t afford to hire a neuropsychologist but they were able to find one who reviewed sworn statements from witnesses and he opined that Morva needed to be evaluated for an Axis 1 Disorder – probably schizophrenia or a delusional disorder, both life impacting, serious mental illnesses.

A later court finally appointed a psychiatrist who actually met personally with Morva and dug deeper into his past mental history. She agreed with the neuropsychologist and diagnosed Morva with a delusional disorder.morva000

Delusions are fixed, false beliefs about reality that are earnestly and steadfastly maintained despite incontrovertible and obvious proof that they are false. DSM-5 at 819.  A person who suffers from delusional disorder is incapable of distinguishing between his delusions and objective reality.         (Photo courtesy of the Roanoke Times) 

The psychiatrist and neuropsychologist said Morva suffers from three subtypes of delusional disorder: persecutory delusions, grandiose delusions, and somatic delusions. Both further noted a history of serious mental illnesses in Morva’s family tree, which is significant given that schizophrenia and delusional disorders are thought to be genetically linked. If jurors had received this additional information, especially that Morva had a severe mental illness diagnosed as delusional disorder, his attorneys suspect he would not have been given a death sentence.

Campaign To Stop Execution

Morva’s hopes for a reprieve ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case. His defense team, Dawn Davison and Rob Lee, with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, and John Sheldon, have created a persuasive website called Mercy For Morva to enlist the public’s help in pushing for a commutation.  In an email, Attorney Davison wrote:

First & foremost, we are asking people to call the Governor (804-786-2211) and ask him to commute William’s sentence and ensure he receives appropriate medical treatment. People can also email the Governor using this link on his website: Email the GovernorWe have a petition we are asking people to sign as well. People can follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Liking and sharing our posts will help us get the word out. Finally, we have a website with more information about William, videos, and links to all the above information:

Virginia ranks second, tied with Oklahoma, when it comes to executing prisoners. (Texas leads with 521 executions.) Virginia has put 112 individuals to death since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. The state holds the record for the shortest time on average between death sentence and executions (less than 8 years) and has only five men currently on its death row as of June 2017. This is in part because state habeas corpus petitions for condemned men are heard by the state supreme court under exclusive original jurisdiction, sixty days after a direct review becomes final, avoiding any time delaying proceedings before the lower courts — even when new evidence is found.

Most governors have been reluctant to commute death cases when the victims are law enforcement officers and/or security guards, as in Morva’s case.

It will take a groundswell to stop William Morva from being put to death by lethal injection on July 6th.

If Gov. McAuliffe commutes Morva’s sentence, this delusional 35 year-old man not be released. Nor would he be sent to a state mental hospital for treatment and freed. He would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Those seeking blood should remember what U.S. Supreme Justice Anthony M. Kennedy once wrote:

It must be remembered that for the person with severe mental illness who has no treatment, the most dreaded of confinements can be the imprisonment inflicted by his own mind, which shuts reality out and subjects him to the torment of voices and images beyond our powers to describe.

Gov. McAuliffe needs to commute Morva’s sentence. Executing individuals with serious mental illnesses that clearly played a role in their crimes is wrong.

(Once again, here is how you can get involved: Governor (804-786-2211) and ask him to commute William’s sentence and ensure he received appropriate medical treatment. People can also email the Governor using this link on his website: Email the GovernorWe have a petition we are asking people to sign as well. People can follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.)

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About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.