Poor Choice Inviting Governor McAuliffe To Speak About ‘Solutions’ Two Weeks After He Okayed Execution of Seriously Ill Prisoner


(7-17-17) The National Council on Behavioral Health and Janssen Pharmaceuticals have made an unfortunate choice in featuring Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe as a speaker at a State of Mental Health Care: Challenges and Solutions forum being held tomorrow (Tuesday – the 18th) at The Newseum in Washington D.C..

Less than two weeks ago, Gov. McAuliffe refused to stop the execution of a 35 year-old man diagnosed with a serious mental illness. He could have spared William Morva’s life by commuting his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Instead, McAuliffe served up a twisted version of a Nuremberg defense.

A cynic might accuse the governor of not wanting to irk one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state, the Virginia Sheriff’s Association (Morva murdered a sheriff’s deputy) or suggest McAuliffe didn’t want to possibly jeopardize his future chances as a potential Democratic presidential candidate by appearing soft on crime.

(Let’s not forget that former President Bill Clinton interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign bid to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain damaged prisoner who asked his Arkansas prison guards not to remove his food tray from his cell – while being led into the death chamber – because he’d left a piece of pie there that he would finish later.)

If the National Council and Janssen had wanted to invite a governor who is a true mental health reformer, they should have asked Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Instead, they got a governor of a state that was listed last year by Mental Health America as being among the ten worst in the entire nation at providing mental health care.

Since McAullife assumed office in January 2014, the number of women with serious mental illnesses being held in Virginia jails has jumped from 16.13 percent at the end of 2013 to a whopping 25.79 percent. The number of incarcerated men with mental illnesses has increased from 12.64 percent to 14.35 percent. Yet, there are fewer than nine mental health courts or speciality dockets in the entire state, jail pre-release programs are virtually non-existent, Housing First and Act teams are rare, there are long waiting lists to see community therapists and half of those who show up at community mental health centers have no health coverage.

But it is McAuliffe’s actions in two recent horrific Virginia cases that should shame him from showing his face at tomorrow’s forum.

I’ve written extensively about how the governor’s administration bungled its investigation into the death of Jamychael Mitchell, who died from a heart attack caused by starvation while being held in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail for 101 days waiting for a bed at a state hospital. Mitchell, age 24, had schizophrenia and had been arrested for stealing $5.05 worth of snack food.

If McAuliffe’s actions in that tragedy weren’t enough to disqualify him as being any sort of mental health expert, consider the July 6th execution of William Morva that he greenlighted.

There was no question Morva had a mental illness.

Experts at Morva’s trial told jurors that the accused had a “schizotypal personality disorder,” but claimed it had not impaired his judgment when he fatally shot a sheriff’s deputy and a hospital security guard while escaping from jail. Both murders were awful. Death penalty cases always involve heinous crimes. But McAuliffe chose to ignore the findings of an independent psychiatrist appointed by a federal court after Morva’s trial who was the only expert to have interviewed Morva and considered his complete psychiatric history. That doctor said Morva’s judgment was impaired by a serious delusional disorder similar to schizophrenia. Appeals for clemency were filed by The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Washington Post, the ACLU, more than 30,000 petitioners and 26 state legislators who urged McAuliffe to spare Morva because of his serious mental disorder. 

In response, McAuliffe wrote, ““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.”

You would think an elected official who claims to be opposed to the death penalty would rule on the side of life, not death, when the fate of someone with a serious mental illness hangs in the balance.

Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which is paying for the forum; the National Council for Behavioral Health, which organized it; and the Hill newspaper, which is moderating it, have invited personal friends of mine and advocates whom I admire to speak at the forum. They include Fred Osher, from the Council of State Governments Justice Center; Linda Rosenberg, President and CEO of the National Council; Teresa Pasquini, a mother and dynamic California Bay Area advocate; and John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center. Also invited are: Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), Michelle Wang Goodridge from Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Dr. Altha J. Stewart, president elect of the American Psychiatric Association.

The mental health community has worked hard to honor elected officials who share our values about improving mental health care in this nation. These include leaders such as Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tx.), Bill Cassidy, (R-La.) Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and especially Representatives Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), Grace Napolitano (D-Ca.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Gov. Kasich.

These elected officials and the advocates, whom I mentioned above, deserve our adulation and are worth hearing.

But when it comes to Gov. McAuliffe?

I will be skipping this forum.

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

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


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.