Virginia Gov. Okays Tonight’s Execution of Prisoner With Severe Mental Illness Despite Pleas: But Claims To Be Mental Health Advocate

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe speaks during a debate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(7-6-17) Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe should be embarrassed to show his face at a State of Mental Health Care: Challenges and Solutions forum being held by the Hill newspaper Tuesday, July 18, at The Newseum.

It is disingenuous to have McAuliffe on the same platform with mental health advocates after his decision this afternoon to not intervene in the planned execution of a 35 year-old man with a severe mental illness – despite pleas by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the daughter of one of the murder victims, numerous elected leaders and The Washington Post. 

Morva is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection tonight at 9 p.m. even though an independent, court appointed psychiatrist said Morva has a severe delusional disorder that impaired his thinking when he fatally shot Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland while escaping from jail in 2006.abcdefg

McAuliffe’s decision really should not surprise anyone who has paid attention to how his administration has treated individuals with mental illnesses.

Both he and Attorney General Mark Herring cried crocodile tears when the body of Jamycheal Mitchell, who died of a heart attack caused by starvation, was found in his Hampton Road Regional Jail Cell where he had been waiting for 101 days for admission into a state hospital for treatment of his schizophrenia.

Although he claimed concern, Gov. McAuliffe cleared one of his political appointees of mishandling an investigation into Mitchell’s death without ever bothering to speak to an employee who filed a whistleblower complaint about the state Inspector General’s investigation. Later, he found another plum state government job for that Inspector General after the state legislature refused to reappoint her. Meanwhile, it was Herring’s office that reportedly sat on an investigative report about Mitchell’s death until the state legislature adjourned and then, according to a Richmond Times Dispatch story, “intervened” when investigators attempted to find out what had happened to Mitchell while he was being held in jail after stealing $5.05 worth of snacks.  The handling of the Mitchell case was so badly handled that the U.S. Department of Justice decided to launch its own probe of the jail.

In refusing to grant clemency, McAuliffe and Herring both showed their same stripes. The governor announced:

“I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied. Thus, after extensive review and deliberation consistent with the process I have applied to previous requests for commutation, I have declined Mr. Morva’s petition. I have and will continue to pray for the families of the victims of these terrible crimes and for all of the people whose lives have been impacted.”

McAuliffe ignored the findings of a report by an independent psychiatrist appointed by a federal court after Morva’s trial and the only expert to have interviewed Morva and considered his complete psychiatric history. Attorney General Mark Herring (who represents Virginia on appeals) could have had Morva evaluated by another expert of the state’s own choosing, but Herring never bothered to go back to the federal court and ask for that evaluation. It was just a man’s life in the balance.

In a strongly worded letter, NAMI pleaded with the governor to spare Morva.

Jurors are frequently presented with inaccurate information about defendants with severe mental illness, reinforcing perceptions that the crimes were products of willful choices rather than the severe, untreated symptoms of their mental illness. Jurors often do not receive information about the effectiveness of treatment.

We are concerned that these false stereotypes may have played a critical role in Mr. Morva’s death sentence. Jurors were told that Mr. Morva’s behavior was the result of “schizotypal personality disorder.” It was explained that this is a psychiatric term confirming that Mr. Morva had problematic “attitudes towards the world.” Jurors also were told that these attitudes were static—that Mr. Morva would never change, and that he would remain “aggressive” forever because personality disorders are not amenable to treatment. There was no evidence offered to explain why Mr. Morva would kill, or to suggest that Mr. Morva could be redeemed and rehabilitated.

Now we know, however, that the information jurors heard was not true. After development and review of his complete psychiatric history—including symptomology in the years immediately preceding the crimes—Mr. Morva was diagnosed with delusional disorder, an acute psychotic disorder similar to schizophrenia. Delusional disorders are characterized by the presence of delusions, or “false belief[s] based on [an] incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly held despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary.” Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, at 819 (5th ed). As noted by the diagnosing psychiatrist, a combination of Mr. Morva’s longstanding delusions led to his crimes. Mr. Morva felt he had to escape from jail because of persecutory and somatic delusions that conspirators were using the poor conditions at the jail to kill him. He was terrified, and came to believe that he was at imminent risk of death—this was Mr. Morva’s reality, albeit demonstrably false.

The daughter of Deputy Eric Sutphin, who was murdered by Morva, also sought clemency while Sutphin’s mother urged Morva’s execution. Rachel Sutphin said in an email to reporters that she sent McAuliffe a letter requesting clemency for the man who murdered her father.

“I am against the death penalty for religious and moral reasons. I have fought and will continue to fight for clemency for all death row inmates until Virginia declares the death penalty unconstitutional,” she said

In his final budget proposal, McAuliffe claimed to be a friend of persons with mental illnesses by calling for $31.7 million to improve and standardize treatment for mental illness and substance abuse around the state, but the real champions behind that funding and an overhaul of mental health in Virginia have been Republican Delegate Rob Bell and Democratic State Sen. Creigh Deeds who have consistently pushed for reforms – not the governor nor the attorney general.

The Hill newspaper sponsoring the forum would be better served by dropping its  invitation to McAuliffe and inviting Bell or Deeds – two legislators who are genuinely committed to improving Virginia’s system. Those participating are:


  • Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Member, House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health
  • Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), Commonwealth of Virginia
  • Dennis Hobb, Executive Director, McClendon Center
  • Teresa Pasquini, Mental Health Advocate
  • Linda Rosenberg, President and CEO, National Council on Behavioral Health
  • John Snook, Executive Director, Treatment Advocacy Center
  • Dr. Altha J. Stewart, President-Elect, American Psychiatric Association
  • Michelle Wang Goodridge, President, Central Nervous System, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Here is the full statement from the Governor’s office

“Over the past several weeks, my staff and I have carefully considered the petition for clemency submitted by William Morva, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland. We have also reviewed extensive communications from family members of the victims, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and concerned observers from all over the world.

“Consistent with the three previous petitions for commutation of a capital sentence that I have reviewed, I have evaluated Mr. Morva’s submission for evidence that he has been subjected to a miscarriage of justice at any phase of his trial that could have impacted the verdict or his sentence. After extensive review and deliberation, I do not find sufficient cause in Mr. Morva’s petition or case records to justify overturning the will of the jury that convicted and sentenced him.

“There is no question that, in a carefully orchestrated effort to escape custody while awaiting trial for burglary, robbery and firearms charges, Mr. Morva brutally attacked a deputy sheriff, stole his firearm and used it to murder Mr. McFarland, who was unarmed and had his hands raised as he was shot in the face from a distance of two feet. The next day, Mr. Morva murdered Corporal Sutphin by shooting him in the back of the head.

“Mr. Morva’s petition for clemency states that he suffers from a delusional disorder that rendered him unable to understand the consequences of his actions.

“That diagnosis is inconsistent with the findings of the three licensed mental health professionals appointed by the trial court, including an expert psychiatrist who is Board-Certified in both Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry. Two of these three experts were called by Mr. Morva’s own legal team. These experts thoroughly evaluated Mr. Morva and testified to the jury that, while he may have personality disorders, he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences.

“As my team and I gave Mr. Morva’s mental state the consideration it deserves, we also consulted with the Virginia Department of Corrections, whose mental health staff have monitored him weekly and assessed him quarterly for the past nine years and have never reported any evidence of delusional disorder or severe mental illness.

“Additionally, we evaluated the rulings of the numerous state and federal courts that have reviewed this case and have all upheld the jury’s verdict and sentence, including the Supreme Court of Virginia, the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and the Supreme Court of the United States.

“Mr. Morva’s petition relies on the diagnosis of a psychiatrist who evaluated him nearly seven years after his trial and conviction. My team and I evaluated that report closely alongside the findings of the experts who testified at trial in order to determine if the totality of their findings might have led the jury or appellate courts to hand down a different sentence.

“At the conclusion of that review, I have determined that Mr. Morva was given a fair trial and that the jury heard substantial evidence about his mental health as they prepared to sentence him in accordance with the law of our Commonwealth. In short, the record before me does not contain sufficient evidence to warrant the extraordinary step of overturning the decision of a lawfully empaneled jury following a properly conducted trial.

“I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied. Thus, after extensive review and deliberation consistent with the process I have applied to previous requests for commutation, I have declined Mr. Morva’s petition. I have and will continue to pray for the families of the victims of these terrible crimes and for all of the people whose lives have been impacted.”


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.