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July 6, 2017

Virginia Gov decides claim of delusional disorder does not justify halting scheduled execution of double murderer

As noted in this prior post, tonight's planned execution in Virginia of William Morva has brought renewed attention to the intersection of mental illness and capital punishment. That attention likely played a role in this decision by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to release this statement today explaining his decision not to prevent Morva's execution. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

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....

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.

UPDATE: This Reuters article suggests that Morva's execution was completed without difficulty Thursday night.

July 6, 2017 at 05:36 PM | Permalink


There is no difference in the biological, individual choice, and social basis of any human behavior.

Prof. Berman is no more responsible or not responsible for his success in legal academics than this murderer, or than a guy who can pitch a baseball at 95 mph for 2 hours.

If the mental illness of this murderer is a mitigating factor, Prof. Berman should return his endowed chair salary. He is no more, no less responsible for his achievements. The baseball pitcher should return his $10 million salary.

Intent is the basis of all mitigation. It is copied word for word from the catechism. It was devised as a loophole by monks on the bench, when the sole criminal penalty was the death penalty. Steal a flower from the King's land, you must be put to death. Its religious origin makes mitigation unlawful in our secular nation. It was cool and advanced in the 13th Century, not today.

As to delusions, Prof. Berman had to pass lawyer exams. They required that he express his belief in the supernatural powers of mind reading, of future forecasting, and that standards of conduct should be set by a fictitious character. Not even the Medieval church held those beliefs. In accordance with their faith, they believed God had those powers, and would judge the soul of the deceased upon arrival in heaven. They never believed man could do that, as the crazy lawyer does.

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. Ding.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 7, 2017 1:56:23 AM

Morva was executed uneventfully.

Here is what is outrageous. Lawyers kept this career criminal alive long enough for him to execute 2 officers, after faking a medical problem to be taken to the hospital. The lawyer profession is 100% responsible for the deaths of the two officers. They executed the wrong guy today.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 7, 2017 2:09:43 AM

More than 34,000 people petitioned Governor Terry McAuliffe to halt Thursday's execution, including the slain deputy's daughter, Rachel Sutphin.
"I am against the death penalty for religious and moral reasons," Ms Sutphin said in an email to reporters.
"I have fought and will continue to fight for clemency for all death row inmates until Virginia declares the death penalty unconstitutional.

Posted by: peter | Jul 7, 2017 3:19:26 AM

Peter. Any data on the fraction of the petitioners, including the daughter, who are government dependent, including those whose employers are government dependent? The rent seeking theory will then explain their views.

While we are at it, please tell the class the fraction of your income or that of your employer from government.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 7, 2017 6:44:33 AM

Glad to see at least this site with proper headlines: a "CLAIM" of mental illness. Most other lefty news sites and twitter are plastered with Mentally ill man to be executed. More FAKE NEWS mor elies by agenda pushers. These CLAIMS by lawyers are nothing new. Everything was adjudicated multiple times by judge and jury and mental health experts. He is competent. Then and now. So spreading lies will only make Death penalty foes weaker not stronger. I congratulate Dem Terry McAuliffe for his well reasoned decision. Notice the left couldn't attacked the well reasoned statement of FACTS. This didn't stop the hysterical left like Helen Prejean from spewing nonsense. Killing 3 people let alone a cop demands justice be tilted to the favor of the state if there was any doubt. Of which there was NONE in this case #KILLtheKILLERS VA #2 for the year and #14 for the USA.

Posted by: DeanO | Jul 7, 2017 7:59:37 AM

as peter notes, a victim's daughter was among those against the execution. This repeatedly is the case. I assume those who are the voice of the victims will respectfully disagree with this specific one's view of justice. Well, maybe some not so much.

This was a case where the crime was in the narrow range that can reasonably be seen as "worst of the worst," but even there it is not clear that there lacked mitigation. I don't have the whole record here or expertise to judge but appears from the coverage there was some doubt. This means, of course, others are very sure of themselves.

From a Guardian article:

His lawyers argued Morva escaped and killed the men because he was under the delusion that he was going to die in jail.

Well. Didn't mean this way, but there you go.

There is also the overall concern about the system as a whole, even if specific cases are arguably just. But, even here, you don't have a pure case. No "got to decide if torture is okay even if it is crystal clear it saves lives."

Posted by: Joe | Jul 7, 2017 10:29:43 AM

I would add that, like other officials whose private views clash with public policy in various respects, I respect that the governor here balanced his private/public roles in the way he did. I might disagree with him on the merits if I saw everything he did, but like a Republican governor recently who vetoed a bill recently that benefited the pro-life movement because the governor argued on the merits it was bad public policy, this is an honorable approach.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 7, 2017 10:34:10 AM

"This Reuters article suggests that Morva's execution was completed without difficulty Thursday night."

The "suggestion" this one was completed without difficulty appears to be a matter of implication (no problems are cited). But, to the degree something is directly said, the article cites alleged problems in an earlier execution. This doesn't mean there was or there was enough to make it legally a problem, but as to "suggests," there is that.

The official word (fwiw) is that there were not complications.


Posted by: Joe | Jul 7, 2017 11:10:39 AM

Joe. Please, tell the class the fraction of your income or that of your employer that comes from government.

Mine is very close to 100%. So my arguments are against my economic interest. That fraction makes me the most morally superior commentator here. I view everyone else here as a deplorable cheap whore, selling out the public safety for some lousy salary.

The condemned in this case overpowered trained peace officers. If his aim was to escape, why was it necessary to kill them? One has to wonder about the intelligence of his advocates.

The family of the victim has no more moral standing than any member of the public. They would if the death penalty were for revenge, since their loss was the greatest. It is not for revenge. At most it is for utility, at the least it is for justice, which is different from revenge. Justice is to assert the rule of law. General deterrence is ineffective at the low numbers of capital punishments. It also violates the Fifth Amendment Due process right to a fair hearing, punishing a person to scare people he has never met, and who have not yet even decided to commit a crime.

I declined an opportunity to assist Gary Heidnik in his defense, a Pennsylvania serial killer depicted in the Silence of the Lambs. That job would have meant $millions in future employment opportunities, especially if I could have gotten him off.

The problem? He made $80,000 in the stock market. He lured a lot of girls to his bunker for sadistic fun purposes. I did not know how to do either. He was superior to me in intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness. Should a defendant superior in mental function to his captors and to his defense experts get mitigation in a death penalty sentence?

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 7, 2017 11:16:46 AM

Not quite there yet, but will be there soon. The functional brain scans of pedophiles, likely in response to erotic images, are different.

Get ready, not only for mitigation, but for their demands for privileges, such as handicapped parking, Medicaid coverage as disabled people. Employers will have to have reasonable accommodations. And, an appellate court will uphold charges of sex discrimination if you make a negative remark about the "pervs that rape and kill little kids." The employer will have to pay the pedophile $million for sex discrimination.


Posted by: David Behar | Jul 9, 2017 10:40:57 AM

"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."

Say, I sincerely believe and cannot be dissuaded from the belief that I am the Paraclete of Caborga, and that the FBI is beaming radar at my brain and counting my criminal ideas. I have felt terrorized and threatened for years, and I just cannot take it anymore.

I am going to defend myself against unbearable oppression and fear by killing a lot of people in a theater.

Does that make me unable to understand that if I shoot a bullet into the vital organs of my oppressors, that they will not die? Do delusions make people lose knowledge they knew by age 3? Second, why would I choose to get a gun and to shoot people if I did not know it would kill them? Do delusions make me forget the potential consequence to me, that the death penalty may happen to me? Say, the answer is yes, does forgetting remove the intent element from the murders, and turn them into an accident, a tort?

You defense lawyers, please, explain the above lawyer quote. It came from a written petition for clemency, not from off the cuff mispeaking.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 9, 2017 10:56:48 AM

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