The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Convicted killer executed after Va. governor declined clemency bid

William Morva listened as the possibility of the death penalty or possible life in prison was discussed during jury selection in Christiansburg, Va., in September 2007. (Matt Gentry/AP)

William C. Morva was executed Thursday night in Virginia, after supporters failed to convince Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that Morva’s mental illness merited clemency and a life sentence in the 2006 murders of a sheriff’s deputy and an unarmed hospital security guard.

Morva was pronounced dead at 9:15 p.m., according to Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman for the state corrections department. “When asked whether he had any last words, Mr. Morva responded ‘no,’ ” Kinney said. “The execution was carried out without complications.”

McAuliffe, who is personally opposed to the death penalty, said he would not stop the execution because he is convinced Morva received a fair trial. The governor also dismissed claims Morva was experiencing delusions at the time of the shootings.

“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,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

As governor, McAuliffe blocked a scheduled execution in April but has allowed two others to proceed.

In seeking clemency, Morva’s attorneys said the jurors who sentenced him to death were not told about the severity of his mental illness. His case became part of a larger national effort to eliminate capital punishment for people with illnesses like Morva’s delusional disorder.

Responding to the governor’s decision Thursday, Morva’s legal team said the execution “will not make our community safer. He is not ‘the worst of the worst’ for whom the death penalty is supposed to be reserved. He is a person with a severe mental illness whose problematic and criminal behaviors were driven by his chronic psychotic disorder.”

“William apparently will go to his grave never having received treatment,” attorney Dawn Davison of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center said in a statement.

Morva, 35, was convicted in 2008 for shooting Cpl. Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland after escaping from custody.

His clemency effort garnered support from local, national and international advocates pressing to stop states from executing people with severe mental illnesses. Amnesty International, the ACLU of Virginia and mental health organizations delivered more than 30,000 petitions to McAuliffe asking him to commute Morva’s death sentence.

More than two dozen members of the Virginia General Assembly and three of the state’s representatives in Congress, all Democrats, also asked McAuliffe to block the execution. On Wednesday, one of the daughter’s of the slain sheriff’s deputy said she, too, had written to McAuliffe supporting clemency for the man who killed her father.

Morva was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 9 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center, about 160 miles south of Washington. He was executed with a combination of three drugs that includes midazolam. The controversial sedative has been used in other states’ executions that were prolonged and apparently painful.

The last execution in Virginia in January was the first to rely on midazolam and the first since the passage of a state law that keeps secret the drug suppliers to shield them from political and public pressure.

Democratic lawmakers ask McAuliffe to commute sentence of convicted killer

Lawmakers in eight states, including Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee, have introduced bills that would make people with severe mental illness ineligible for the death penalty. Advocates say capital punishment was not intended for people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality.

The legislative proposals address punishment, not guilt or innocence. The Supreme Court has already said people with intellectual disabilities and juveniles may not be executed because of their diminished culpability.

After years of appeals in state and federal court, the high court declined to take up Morva’s case in February.

Elizabeth Morva, his mother, has expressed remorse for her son’s actions and said that he has not received the psychological treatment he needed.

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

Mary K. Pettitt, the Montgomery County, Va., commonwealth attorney, who helped prosecute Morva, had told McAuliffe the jury had sufficient information about his mental health and urged him not to overturn a fair verdict.

Pettitt said Thursday that the governor had reached the same conclusion as the jury that “Morva knowingly and deliberately over a two-day period killed two men and left another for dead” in what she called a “senseless tragedy.”

In addition to law enforcement officials, McAuliffe said he heard from family members of the victims. Only Sutphin's daughter has issued a public statement and asked for privacy for other relatives.

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

Years before the shootings, Morva’s friends and family were concerned about his mental health following his decision to drop out of Blacksburg High School.

He went barefoot in winter, sometimes slept in the woods and told people he had special powers and was in training to fight in the wild on behalf of Native Americans. Morva’s daily routine became consumed by unusual habits — eating large amounts of raw meat and spending hours in the bathroom.

His mental health deteriorated further when he was locked up for a year in jail awaiting trial on attempted robbery charges. Morva was convinced that someone at the prison was trying to kill him and intentionally withholding medical care, he told his mother in a series of phone calls from jail on recorded lines.

In August 2006, a deputy escorted Morva to Montgomery Regional Hospital for treatment of minor injuries. In the bathroom, Morva knocked the deputy unconscious, took his gun and then shot McFarland, the unarmed security guard. The next day, he shot Sutphin, the decorated sheriff’s deputy, who was out searching for Morva on a wooded trail near the campus of Virginia Tech.

Man arrested near Va. Tech in two killings

The jury that sentenced Morva to death in 2008 heard from two doctors who diagnosed him with a personality disorder similar to schizophrenia. They noted his 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 — a determination that later was rebutted by another doctor and Morva’s new team of lawyers.

After reviewing the conflicting medical evaluations, McAuliffe said Thursday that he was persuaded by the initial findings at trial that Morva was not suffering “from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences.”

Morva’s diagnosis of delusional disorder came during the appeals process and after a more in-depth psychiatric evaluation. Davison, Morva’s attorney, stressed on Thursday that Morva “was in the grip of a powerful psychosis” at the time of the shootings. Morva has not accepted in-person visits from his lawyers and his mother for years. He insisted they were part of the conspiracy to kill him.

Despite his opposition to capital punishment, McAuliffe has allowed two executions to go forward. In January, Ricky Gray was the last Virginia inmate to be executed. Gray had been convicted of killing two young girls in a brutal 2006 home invasion.

In April, McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz in a murder-for-hire case because of what the governor described as a flawed sentencing process.

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.

Read more:

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

There’s a word that no longer describes the federal appeals court in Richmond

Despite a mother’s plea, her mentally ill daughter was sold a gun, with tragic consequences

‘Pizzagate’ gunman says he was foolish, reckless and mistaken