Last night, Virginia executed William Morva for the 2006 murders of a sheriff’s deputy and a hospital security guard. Morva killed his victims while serving time in a county jail for attempted armed robbery. He had premeditated his escape.
Few people wrote about the case in the weeks leading up to Morva’s execution. I suspect that’s because as death penalty cases go, this one at first blush seems pretty sound. There’s no doubt that Morva killed two men. And there’s little doubt that he is a potential threat to public safety.
But there is no such thing as a routine execution. A criminal-justice system built and run by flawed human beings will always be flawed. Because an execution is the ultimate punishment, and because it’s irreversible, every state killing presents some profound moral quandaries. This one is no different.
Morva suffered from severe mental illness. In his statement denying Morva clemency, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) pointed out that while the three mental health professionals who evaluated Morva at trial found signs of mental illness, all three found that “he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences.” But as Liliana Segura reported for the Intercept, it appears that those evaluations were based on incomplete reviews of Morva’s history. (Disclosure: Segura is my wife.) In interviews with Morva’s friends and family, along with reviews of letters he has written over the years, Segura paints a portrait of a man who was spiraling into delusional behavior well before he committed his crimes.
According to friends who new him well, Morva began acting strangely in his late teens. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, Morva told friends that he was on a special team of people tasked with saving the world. There’s evidence that Morva was abused, at least psychologically. His father apparently made him wear dresses to school to “toughen” him up. A man who described himself as Morva’s best friend told Segura that when they were roommates, Morva would spend hours in the bathroom, a strange ritual that eventually caused the friend to ask Morva to move out. Morva said all the time in the bathroom was necessary to his digestive issues. He began a bizarre diet of pine cones, raw meat, and cheese. His first arrest came after he was found on the floor, pants-less, in a Virginia Tech campus bathroom.
When his father died, Morva showed up at the funeral barefoot. The Post’s Ann Marimow reported Friday, Morva often “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.” This was all before Morva had committed any serious crime. Which is to say this was not feigned behavior aimed at escaping the death penalty. Yet the jurors who sentenced Morva to die heard almost none of it.
Morva’s arrest for attempted armed robbery came in 2005, when he and another man tried to rob a convenience store, apparently due to Morva’s delusional belief that his mother was destitute after his father’s death. The effort was laughably inept. The men gave up on the heist when they couldn’t get the door open. Morva didn’t steal a single item and didn’t point his gun at anyone. Morva was then kept in a crowded county jail for more than a year. His mental illness went diagnosed and untreated. As one of Morva’s friends told Segura, “We were like, ‘Look, Will is not mentally stable . . . If you guys throw him in the middle of this institution, it’s like a time bomb.” And it was. After a year in jail, Morva attempted escape, which resulted in the two murders for which he was executed.
Since then, other mental health professionals have told Morva’s attorneys and the courts that he suffered from severe delusional disorder and that his illness played a direct role in his crimes. Morva believed that if he stayed in jail, he would eventually die. That particular delusion turned out to be prophetic.
The U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of “mentally retarded” people, but has been much less clear about those with mentally illness. Morva’s case seems particularly tragic, because his time in a crowded jail almost certainly exacerbated his untreated illness, and it likely contributed to the desperation that motivated his crimes.
Back in 1992, another southern, Democratic governor with national political ambitions signed off on the execution of a mentally ill man. Ricky Ray Rector had effectively lobotomized himself during a suicide attempt. His mental state was such that during his last meal, he refused to eat a slice of pecan pie, telling corrections officials he was ” saving it for later.”
The parallels between Bill Clinton and Terry McAuliffe are striking, not least because the two are longtime friends, and McAuliffe has raised millions of dollars for both Bill and Hillary Clinton. (Morva’s execution also comes just as former Clinton strategist Mark Penn co-wrote a widely disparaged op-ed in the New York Times praising Clinton’s law-and-order credentials and urging Democrats to take a tougher position on crime.)
There are some key differences. Clinton was an outspoken death-penalty supporter, and he made a point to leave his presidential campaign to oversee Rector’s execution, a shameless display of political grandstanding. McAuliffe hasn’t yet decided to run for president, and he claims to be opposed to capital punishment.
But the fact that McAuliffe didn’t exploit Morva’s death the way Clinton exploited Rector’s doesn’t make Morva any less dead, and it doesn’t make McAuliffe’s decision any less political. In Virginia, there are no clemency boards or panels in death penalty cases. The decision to commute a death sentence is solely the governor’s, which of course makes it makes that decision inescapably political.
If you’re morally opposed to the death penalty, it’s hard to see how you could look at Morva’s deterioration — and the state’s role in abetting that deterioration — and determine that this is the sort of cold-blooded killer for whom the death penalty was designed. Morva’s prosecutor has dismissed the more thorough evaluations of his mental condition as little more than the opinions of doctors hired by a desperate defense team. But Morva’s trial jury never heard the stories of Morva’s decline that his friends and family described to both Segura and Morva’s new legal team. At the very least, it would seem that his jury was asked to sentence him without being given a complete picture of what had happened to him. One would think an opponent of the death penalty such as McAuliffe would be troubled by this.
And yet Morva killed a security guard and a police officer. In a political climate where law enforcement groups and conservative law-and-order types continue to push a “war on cops” narrative, granting clemency to Morva would have taken some real political courage — courage McAuliffe apparently lacks.
The decision to execute ought to be insulated from politics as much as it possibly can be. The Virginia system virtually guarantee that politics will drive the governor’s actions.
Virginia is one of three states that executes the condemned with a three-drug cocktail that includes the drug midazolam, a sedative in the benzodiazepine family of drugs that was never intended to be used in executions. Defenders of the cocktail say midazolam renders the inmate unconscious and blocks him or her from feeling pain as the two other drugs are administered to stop the heart and to stop breathing. The problem is that there’s no way of knowing if midazolam actually blocks the pain of those procedures or simply renders the inmate paralyzed and unable to show signs of suffering. Critics say the drug is a sedative, not an anesthetic. (The FDA does not approve use of the drug as anesthetic.) A series of horrific botched executions, most notably Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, provided growing evidence that the critics were right.
In 2015, the Supreme Court gave its okay to the drug in the Richard Glossip case out of Oklahoma. In the majority opinion, Samuel Alito wrote that the Eighth Amendment does not require a pain-free death, and that it was up to a prisoner to demonstrate that a method of execution would cause excessive pain. (The majority also concluded that Glossip didn’t succeed in doing so.) Perversely, Alito also ruled that it is up to the prisoners themselves to suggest less painful methods of execution.
As Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent, Alito’s opinion also relied on the opinions of an expert witness for the state of Oklahoma whose only citations to back up his argument that midazolam sufficiently anesthetized the condemned was a fact sheet from the drug’s manufacturer and a printout from the website drugs.com — and even those didn’t really back up his claims. It would also later be revealed that the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office made false claims about the drug’s suppliers in its briefs to the court. (The Oklahoma AG at the time was Scott Pruitt, now the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.)
To insist that the use of midazolam is “humane” despite not knowing whether the drug truly anesthetizes the condemned or merely renders them unable to indicate that they’re being tortured to death is a good indication that for death penalty supporters, “humaneness” is not about the experience of the people we execute but the experience of those who witness and participate in executions. The methods of execution that would cause the least amount of pain and suffering for the condemned– such as decapitation or firing squad — are dismissed as barbaric because they actually look like executions, and that can be traumatic for witnesses and executioners. Instead, nearly all states employ a method that could easily be mistaken for a medical procedure. It sanitizes the event for the living. Never mind that it may well subject the executed to unimaginable pain.
Many death penalty states have responded to criticism of the lethal injection and how it’s administered by making the entire process less transparent. Virginia, along with several other states, has passed laws or enacted policies shielding the suppliers of execution drugs from open records laws. These states have argued that such laws are necessary to protect suppliers from possibly violent retaliation from death penalty opponents. FBI documents obtained by BuzzFeed last year show that there’s little evidence for those claims.
But isn’t just about the drug suppliers. After Virginia delayed the execution of Ricky Gray this year, apparently due to difficulty inserting an IV, the state changed its execution protocols. A curtain now prevents witnesses and media from seeing the inmate until he is fully strapped to the gurney and the IVs are in place. The window in the witness room is also closest to the inmate’s feet, making it more difficult to see his face.
Death penalty supporters often argue that all of this focus on the suffering of the condemned distracts from the suffering of the victims and their families. But state officials often only want to hear from victims’ families when it supports the cause of capital punishment. In Morva’s case, for example, the daughter of one of his victims is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, and pleaded with McAuliffe to spare Morva’s life.
Of course, prosecutors bring cases on behalf of the community, not on behalf of victims (though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise). Yet while politicians and prosecutors are eager to give victims’ families the spotlight when they’re demanding death, when they advocate mercy they’re often denied a platform. Back in 2014, a Colorado prosecutor sought to block the parents of a murdered man from testifying in the killer’s sentencing phase because they planned to plead with the jury to spare the defendant’s life. Just this month, the mother of a murder victim wrote a column for a Florida newspaper about her frustration in trying to persuade the prosecutor to avoid the death penalty, not just to show mercy for the killer, but also to spare her unnecessary grief.
I didn’t want the death penalty back in 2006 when the murder occurred. I knew what lay ahead for my family if a death sentence was handed down. No one listened to me, though. The prosecutor stubbornly pushed forward with the death penalty. All the pain and uncertainty I predicted with the death penalty sadly has come true.
Still, no one is listening to me. If he wanted, the State Attorney for Brevard County, Phil Archer, could decide to accept a life without parole sentence, and this 11-year nightmare for my family would be over. So far, though, he is determined to seek the death penalty, despite my and other family members’ wishes to the contrary. I also hear Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott praising the death penalty, calling it “justice” for murder victims’ families. I have called his office to share my story, but he ignores surviving family members like myself opposed to the death penalty.
In the end, if you just happened to gaze at the broad strokes in the Morva case, you could be forgiven for not paying it further attention. After all, this was about a man who killed a guard and a deputy while trying to escape his incarceration for an attempted armed robbery. But when you’re handing down the punishment of state-sanctioned killing, there are very few easy cases. If there’s one thing we can say for certain about the death penalty, it’s that it’s reserved for the most culpable, the most brutal, and against whom there is the most incriminating evidence — the worst of the worst, and the slam dunk cases. More typically, it’s administered to those who didn’t accept a plea to implicate the more culpable parties, those who weren’t provided with an adequate defense, those who happen to live in a jurisdiction with an aggressive DA, or those who, like William Morva, suffered from an untreated mental illness.
Some cases are harder than others. But there are just too many problems, contradictions and injustices endemic to the death penalty for there to ever be any easy ones.