Nicholas Cote, a former board member of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Virginia, is president of Right Way Forward Virginia.
William Morva killed two people. This tragic reality is not disputed. But though Morva’s guilt is not in doubt, there is good reason to question Virginia’s plans to execute him. We now know what his sentencing jury didn’t know: Morva suffers from a serious mental illness. Justice cannot be served by executing him.
Morva is a troubled young man. Friends and family recall him starting to behave oddly when he was a senior in high school. The caring and thoughtful youth-group member dropped out of high school and spiraled deeply into mental illness. Morva believed he was being called by a supernatural entity to save the world with powers only he possessed. He told friends that he was called to save native tribes — from South America to Alaska — with his special gifts. For long stretches, even in winter, he claimed to live alone in the woods, barefoot and allegedly surviving only on raw meat, nuts, berries and pine cones he foraged. Sadly, Morva never received treatment for this illness.
After his trial, a forensic psychiatrist evaluated Morva, including a review of his complete psychiatric history, and diagnosed him with delusional disorder. This psychotic disorder involves delusions that last for more than a month, and Morva’s condition is marked by a number of delusions. Simply put, he is unable to tell the difference between reality and delusions. The jury that sentenced him to death never knew this, which is a significant omission in the evidence presented at trial.
There is an important principle governing the death penalty in United States: It is not appropriate for those whose culpability is severely diminished. For this reason, the Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty unconstitutional when applied to juveniles (whose brains aren’t fully developed) and those with intellectual disabilities. Like these categories of individuals, someone with severe mental illness and delusions cannot fully understand his actions. According to Morva’s delusions, he committed his crimes in self-defense, believing himself to be in grave danger. Despite continued debates over the death penalty, there at least is a growing consensus that it makes no sense to execute someone whose culpability is diminished due to psychosis.
To this day, Morva maintains he killed in self-defense and that anyone would have done what he did in his situation. His disorder makes it impossible for him to understand reality and the impact of his behavior. It is not justice to execute a mentally ill man who acted under a psychotic delusion.
Virginia is set to execute Morva on July 6. Considering his case, the decision for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) should be clear: Spare Morva’s life and commute his sentence to life imprisonment. The governor has an opportunity to show that he takes the issue of mental illness seriously and understands that those suffering from it should be spared from execution.
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