Is Virginia killer William Morva too mentally ill to be executed?

Wednesday, 05 July 2017, 04:16:37 PM. Morva was sentenced to death for the murders of a security guard and a deputy. His lawyers say he's delusional.

"Somebody wants me to die."

That's what William Morva told his mother in a phone call from a Virginia jail where he was being held on attempted robbery charges more than a decade ago.

His lawyers say it's part of the evidence that he was in the grips of a delusional disorder when he subsequently made a bloody escape, killing a hospital security guard and a sheriff's deputy.

Morva, now 32, is scheduled to be executed for those murders on Thursday, and a coalition of groups — from mental-health advocates to the European Union — is calling for a reprieve based on his mental state.

is-virginia-killer-william-morva-too-mentally-ill-to-be-executed photo 1 This undated file photo provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections shows convicted murderer William Morva, at the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia. Morva was convicted in 2008 for the murders of three people, is scheduled to be executed on July 6. Morva's attorneys said that they have filed a clemency petition urging the Democratic governor to stop the man's execution scheduled for July 6. AP

They have asked Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to commute Morva's sentence to life. The Democrat, who is personally opposed to capital punishment but has declined to stop two previous executions, has not commented.

Dawn Davison, Morva's lawyer, said that since the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her client's last-ditch appeal in February. Only the governor now stands between him and a lethal injection.

It's not clear if Morva is aware of the remarkable effort to win him clemency, which includes a highly produced website with a documentary-style video chronicling his psychological decline and letters from international diplomats.

"He has not accepted a visit from me or spoken to me in many years," said Davison, a senior attorney at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center. "He believes I am part of the conspiracy trying to kill him."

The mentally ill are not exempt from the death penalty unless they are found to be so insane they can't comprehend the punishment, although a handful of states are weighing legislation to change that.

The jury that condemned Morva to die was told by experts that he had a personality disorder. His attorneys argue he actually suffered from a more serious delusional disorder — he was diagnosed during his appeals process — and that jurors might have sentenced him to life if they believed his illness made him kill.

An appeals court that rejected Morva's request for a stay of execution noted that a lower court found no evidence of a "true mental illness," but family and friends say the Backsburg, Virginia, man was seriously ill.

They describe behavior like gorging on raw meat or subsisting on a diet of nuts, berries and pine cones and claiming he had been chosen to save indigenous people. Symptoms including paranoia and detachment from reality allegedly worsened after he was jailed for more than a year on attempted theft charges.

is-virginia-killer-william-morva-too-mentally-ill-to-be-executed photo 2 In this March 29, 2007, file photo, William Morva watches as prospective jury members are interviewed to serve in his attempted robbery trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, Virginia. Matt Gentry / AP

In one of the recorded jailhouse calls to his mother before the killing, posted on the MercyforMorva.com website, he suggested unknown forces were at work. "Somebody wants me in here purposefully," he said.

As the appeals court noted, he also sent his mother a letter that contained a threat: "I will kick an unarmed guard in the neck and make him drop. Then I’ll stomp him until he is as dead as I’ll be.”

In August 2006, Morva complained of an injury and was taken to the hospital. There, he used a toilet paper holder to batter and overpower an officer and steal his gun, which he turned on unarmed hospital guard Derrick McFarland.

After killing the father of two Morva escaped the hospital. Before he was captured he fatally shot Montgomery County Sheriff's Cpl. Eric Sutphin, an Army veteran with twin daughters, in the back of the head.

Following his conviction on capital murder charges and just before he was sentenced to death, Morva went on a courtroom rant in which he declared his "slave name" was Nemo and said he didn't expect mercy.

"There are others like me, and I hope you know that," he said. "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 your faces forever."

McFarland's widow, Cindy, erupted with grief and rage at his words. "You deserve to burn in hell!" she shouted at him.

is-virginia-killer-william-morva-too-mentally-ill-to-be-executed photo 3 Cpl. Eric E. Sutphin who was shot and killed Aug. 21, 2006. Montgomery's County Sheriff's Department / via AP

The families of Morva's victims did not respond to calls about his impending execution, but the prosecutor for the county, Mary Pettitt, urged McAuliffe not to stop the execution. It's "absurd," she said in a letter to the governor, to believe that the experts who testified at trial misdiagnosed Morva and misled the jurors.

"Two bedrocks of our judicial system are the right to have a jury decide a defendant’s guilt or innocence and the right to have a fair trial. Mr. Morva has had both," she wrote.

“The fairness of his trial has been reviewed, and reviewed, and reviewed with all courts, both state and federal, finding no unfairness or basis to overturn the voice of that jury. So the issue before you is really whether or not you individually are going to override that jury’s voice and undermine our judicial system."

Those urging clemency include a group of Virginia clergy, a dozen state lawmakers and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization.

"While Morva's crimes were horrific, there is strong evidence that they were the product of his delusional symptoms and that without these symptoms, it is highly unlikely that he would have shot the officers," NAMI wrote.

Related: Texas Executes Triple Killer Who Claimed Mental Illness

The case has also drawn interest overseas because Morva has dual citizenship with Hungary.

A Hungarian envoy and representatives of the European Union met with state officials to discuss clemency about a month ago. EU Ambassador David O'Sullivan called it "an exceptional step that we have decided to take to underline the importance we give to the case of Mr. Morva."

While the EU is opposed to the death penalty in general, O'Sullivan said the mental-health issues in Morva's case gave it extra urgency.

One person who wouldn't necessarily agree is Morva himself. "He's unaware of his mental illness," his lawyer said.

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