The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He’s a killer set to die. But his mental illness has set off a new death penalty battle.

Attorney Dawn Davison stands on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol. Davison represents William Morva, whose execution is scheduled for July 6, and is asking Gov. Terry McAuliffe to commute the death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole because of her client’s severe mental illness. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)

Someone was trying to kill him. William C. Morva was certain of it.

He couldn’t breathe and he was withering away, he told his mother in a jailhouse call.

“Somebody wants me to die and I don’t know who it is,” he said. “They know my health is dwindling, okay?”

He sounded paranoid. His voice grew more frantic with each call over several months on the recorded lines.

“How much more time do you think my body has before it gives out?” he asked just months before he escaped from custody, killing an unarmed guard and later a sheriff’s deputy before his capture in woods near Virginia Tech’s campus.

Morva faces execution July 6 for the 2006 killings.

With the date looming, Morva’s family, friends and lawyers are pressing for clemency from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in what has become a broader national push to eliminate capital punishment for people with severe mental illnesses such as Morva’s delusional disorder.

Supporters say the jury at Morva’s trial was given inaccurate information about his mental health and are asking McAuliffe to commute his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Supreme Court in recent years has ruled that juveniles, whose brains are not fully developed, and people with intellectual disabilities are not eligible for the death penalty. Lawmakers in eight states, including Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana, have introduced bills that would expand the prohibition to people with severe mental illnesses.

A vote on an Ohio measure pending in the state legislature is expected this fall. It is backed by a coalition of providers of mental-health services, social justice groups, religious leaders, former state Supreme Court justices and former Republican governor Bob Taft.

The bills address punishment, not guilt or innocence. If lawmakers in Columbus sign off on the measure, Ohio would become the first state to pass an exclusion for severe mental illness among the 31 that retain the death penalty.

Bipartisan legislative efforts underscore shifting views of capital punishment, and about whether it can be applied consistently and fairly.

Advocates for reform say the penalty was not intended for people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality, and that jurors often misunderstand mental illness.

The reformers’ efforts have met with resistance mostly from prosecutors and law enforcement officials who say jurors already can factor in mental illness at sentencing and that the exemptions are too broad.

Morva, 35, exhausted his legal appeals when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up his case in February.

“It hurts me so much to know that there is nothing I can do to fix him,” Elizabeth Morva, his mother, said in an affidavit in support of her son.

Morva was 24 when he fatally shot a decorated sheriff’s deputy, Cpl. Eric Sutphin, and beloved hospital security guard Derrick McFarland. Each was married and the father of two children.

“If someone had intervened sooner, I truly believe William would never have killed those two men,” his mother wrote. “But I cannot change the past. I can only say that I am so sorry and ask that my son please be spared.”

Former governors seek to end death penalty for criminals with severe mental illness

Attorney Dawn Davison of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center says the jury in Morva’s 2008 trial did not consider his psychotic disorder because experts in that case did not have access to Morva’s complete history. Morva was under the influence of his delusions when he escaped and killed Sutphin and McFarland, she said in submitting Morva’s clemency application.

Relatives of the victims did not return phone calls seeking comment on Morva’s petition.

Mary K. Pettitt, the Montgomery County (Va.) commonwealth’s attorney who helped prosecute Morva, has urged the governor to let the jury’s verdict stand.

“To assert some 10 years later that all three of the original experts were wrong is absurd,” Pettitt wrote in a letter to McAuliffe. “With enough time and motivation one can always find an expert to say what you want to hear but that doesn’t mean it is true or accurate.”

McAuliffe is reviewing the case and declined to be interviewed in advance of a decision. The governor is personally opposed to the death penalty, attributing his views to his Catholic faith. He has allowed two executions to go forward, while commuting the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz in April because the sentencing phase of his trial was “flawed and unfair.”


It has been years since Morva accepted in-person visits from his lawyers and his mother.

He insists they are part of the conspiracy to kill him.

Long before Morva committed the murders, there were signs that he was not well. In his senior year at Blacksburg High School, Morva’s parents moved back to the Richmond area, where his father had worked in engineering. Morva stayed behind but dropped out of school weeks before graduation.

In Blacksburg, he walked barefoot in winter and sometimes slept in the Jefferson National Forest, buried in piles of leaves. He was known at the local coffee shop for diatribes about politics and religion, and confided in family and close friends about what he said were special powers he possessed to fix the world’s problems.

Suspect was a legend in Va. Tech community

Morva's early encounters with police came in 2002 when he was 20. Friends say their free-spirited, compassionate classmate who had been active in Amnesty International became consumed by unusual eating patterns — large amounts of raw meat, nuts and pine cones — and spent hours in the bathroom.

In August 2002, Virginia Tech police found Morva after 9 p.m. half-naked on the floor of a women’s bathroom on campus. Officers turned him over to the Blackburg police and called Elizabeth Morva.

“They said, ‘Ma’am he’s not normal.’ I said, I’m beginning to realize that. And they said, ‘Ma’am your son needs help.’ ”

Morva’s mother, a classroom aide for special-education students, declined to be interviewed for this story. Her statements are drawn from transcripts of Morva’s robbery trial and sworn written statements she submitted for her son’s appeals.

At the time of his 2002 arrest, Morva’s mother tried to get him help.

She asked police for a temporary detention order to force an evaluation.

But by then, Morva had calmed down and police said a detention order was not needed. Morva was instead charged with trespassing, released and banned from the university campus.

In the years that followed, Morva worked briefly at a hair salon, in construction and as a waiter. And at his father’s funeral in early 2004, he showed up barefoot and disheveled.

At dinner with his mother soon after the funeral, Morva lectured loudly about the plight of indigenous people. He was in training, he told her, to live in the wild and fight on behalf of Native Americans.

Elizabeth Morva gently suggested her son see a therapist.

“His mind was not normal. His thoughts were not normal, they were disconnected,” she said.

The next year, those undiagnosed, untreated problems landed Morva in jail, his supporters say.


Morva was charged in 2005 in a series of botched robberies and burglaries.

In an attempted robbery, Morva, masked and carrying a shotgun, crept up to a convenience store, only to find the doors locked, then ran off and hid in woods — where police found him.

Jailed for a year while awaiting trial, Morva’s mental health deteriorated. His mother did not bail him out, thinking that he would finally get psychological treatment.

Morva told his mother that he was dying, that someone was torturing him and intentionally withholding medical care — and with that mind-set, was convinced he had to flee.

“He believes anybody would have done exactly what he did,” said Davison, the lawyer who has worked on Morva’s appeals since 2009. The escape, she said, “was all part of this effort to save his life. He’s incapable of seeing things any other way.”

In August 2006, a deputy escorted Morva to the Montgomery Regional Hospital for minor injuries. In a bathroom, Morva knocked him unconscious and took his gun. Morva then shot McFarland, the unarmed hospital security guard, from two feet away as hospital colleagues watched in horror.

He killed Sutphin the next day as the deputy was on a wooded trail in the hunt for the fugitive. Morva shot Sutphin in the back of the head.

Man arrested near Va. Tech in two killings

The jury that decided Morva’s fate in 2008 heard from two doctors who diagnosed him with schizotypal personality disorder similar to schizophrenia. They noted his rigid thinking, odd behavior, and that Morva’s maternal grandmother had been treated for schizophrenia in the 1950s. But the doctors told jurors that Morva was not delusional, an assessment his lawyers dispute — and a determination that later was rebutted by another doctor in what now is the key contention before McAuliffe.

Prosecutors portrayed Morva at trial as “extremely intelligent and extremely dangerous.” The jury reviewed a letter Morva wrote to his mother one month after landing in jail, in which he promised to “kick an unarmed guard in the throat and then I will stomp him until he is as dead as I’ll be.”

Morva’s lawyers acknowledged his horrible crimes but said Morva was “hurting the people that he thought would put him back in jail.” The jury did not hear from Morva’s mother, who said she wanted to testify to explain, not justify, his actions.

After three hours of deliberations, the jury imposed the death penalty.

Before the judge formally sentenced him to death, Morva, in his chance to address the court, called himself Nemo.

“I’m almost done. You may kill me, 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 of your faces forever.”

In the lengthy appeals process, a federal judge agreed to appoint a forensic psychiatrist to evaluate Morva.

By then, Davison and her colleagues had collected dozens of sworn statements. The trial experts, Davison said, had “lacked the complete picture,” and that meant that the jury did, too.

High school classmates, roommates, relatives and co-workers swore to what they had observed up close and consistently in Morva during the years leading to the killings.

The new psychiatrist reviewed their statements and medical records and met with Morva in state prison in 2014.

She concluded that Morva’s delusions began years before the murders and recommended antipsychotic medication.

Morva's appeals were restricted to narrow legal questions about his trial. The appeals courts could not take up the question of whether Morva was mentally ill when he killed McFarland and Sutphin.

“That’s what the governor can do,” Davison said. “The governor is his last hope.”

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