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Is Virginia about to execute a man with a serious mental illness?

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Richmond, Va., Jun 30, 2017 / 04:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- William Morva is scheduled to be executed in Virginia on July 6. He has been convicted of murdering an unarmed security guard and a sheriff’s deputy at age 24, while trying to escape jail, where he had been charged with attempted robbery. However, a court-appointed forensic psychiatrist who examined Morva concluded that he suffered from delusion disorder, and was impaired by the illness at the time of the crime.

Morva’s attorneys claim that had experienced persistent delusions in the past but had not received any mental health treatment in prison. Fearing that he might die of a perceived gastrointestinal problem because of the deliberate negligence of the guards, and that the prison would not be held accountable for it, Morva, they say, decided to escape and shot the security guard and deputy out of a delusional fear for his life.

The scheduled execution is the latest in a series of controversial death penalty cases involving inmates who are arguably mentally ill or intellectually disabled, and whose mental disorders could well have impaired their reasoning at the time of their crimes.

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in Moore v. Texas that the standards of Texas for evaluating the mental condition of inmates did not meet the standards set in previous Court decisions Atkins v. Virginia and Hall v. Florida. States’ standards for determining one’s intellectual disability – and thus one’s eligibility for the death penalty – must meet the medical community’s consensus standards. However, many states still execute inmates with severe mental illness.

Many groups, including the Catholic Mobilizing Network, the American Bar Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, have advocated for barring death sentences for persons who have been ruled by a psychologist to have been severely mentally ill at the time of their crime.

In Morva’s case, his lawyers claim he had suffered from delusional disorder that had gotten worse since he dropped out of high school in his senior year and his family moved across the state to Richmond. He was evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist, Donna Maddox, M.D., who read statements from scores of witnesses who testified to his erratic and delusional behavior. Maddox reviewed his medical records and visited Morva in person. She concluded that he was indeed suffering from a chronic psychotic disorder at the time of his crimes, and probably had been suffering from the illness several years prior.

After Morva’s family moved to Richmond, he remained in the town of Blacksburg after his time in high school and was “a bit of a vagabond,” Robert Lee of the Virginia Capital Resource Center, which represented Morva after he received a death sentence, told CNA. While Morva’s high school classmates admitted he was a little odd, they hadn’t seen any serious signs of delusional behavior. However, that reportedly began to change as he walked around town barefoot and slept at the houses of various friends, Lee said.

Thinking that he suffered from a severe gastrointestinal problem, Morva ate raw meat, lots of cheese, berries, and pine cones. As his fluid living situation and poor health management continued, his mental condition deteriorated. He thought he was destined to be a leader of indigenous tribes in North and South America, and he later believed that the authorities, especially members of the Bush administration, were trying to thwart his grand plan.

In 2005, Morva planned to rob a convenience store with other partners, wearing masks and carrying firearms. They left the storefront after finding it closed, but an employee inside spotted the group and called the police, who apprehended the suspects around town. Charged with attempted robbery, Morva could not leave the Montgomery County Jail in Virginia because his family could not afford to pay the bail.

After hurting his ankle in a fall and being escorted to a hospital by a prison guard for treatment, he knocked the guard unconscious, stole his gun, and shot an unarmed security guard to death on his way out of the hospital. Hiding along a trail in Blacksburg, Va. for 24 hours, Morva was discovered by a Sheriff’s deputy, whom he shot dead with the stolen gun. He was apprehended afterward, and was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

At his capital trial, mental health experts did give Morva an evaluation, but they relied on the testimony of his high school friends, who had not been regularly in touch with him as a young adult, when he had suffered his worst bouts of delusions. Even his estranged mother and sister could only provide limited testimony, as they had lived across the state from him with little contact. They did tell experts of the time he showed up to his father’s funeral unkempt, exhibiting some bizarre behavior, and wanting to walk barefoot, Lee noted.

However, the experts ruled that Morva was not suffering from a psychotic disorder, but rather from a personality disorder that was comprised of odd behavior and a poor attitude. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, after which Robert Lee took up Morva’s case.

“They minimized his mental illness,” Lee insisted, saying that Morva’s psychotic disorders are “amenable to treatment” and medications. Nevertheless, according to the court proceedings, his record is that of his 2006 trial when he was determined to have a personality disorder, not his later determination of delusional disorder.

He is scheduled to be executed on July 6, and Catholics are petitioning Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant him clemency.

Furthermore, Morva’s brother Michael was diagnosed by the Virginia Department of Corrections with a delusional mental disorder. He received treatment and medications for the illness, and after six months the department determined he was “clinically improved and stable.” He is currently employed and living with family.  

“This is the case of somebody who is seriously mentally ill,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told CNA, and “that mental illness precipitated the murder.” Morva’s case is not the only controversial death penalty news of late.

On Wednesday, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ended a federal district court’s halt of Ohio’s execution process by lethal injection. The three-drug process was to be used in three scheduled executions, one of which is now set for July 26. Ohio had used a drug combination of midazolam, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride in its lethal injection protocol. A federal district court had put a halt to that process after claims that midazolam, a sedative, was not effective enough in blocking the painful effects of the other drugs that would paralyze the subject and stop a beating heart.

Midazolam has been used in botched executions, like in Oklahoma where Clayton Lockett was seen visibly writhing on the gurney after midazolam and the ensuing drugs were administered to him. He eventually died of a massive heart attack. While some pointed to the failure of midazolam to protect him from the painful effects of the ensuing drugs, others said that the problem was with a faulty administration of an IV into his vein. A district court halted Ohio’s three-drug process, and the ruling was upheld by a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit.

However, that ruling was appealed to the full court, which issued its 8-6 decision on Wednesday allowing the lethal injection protocol to proceed. Although there was a risk of pain in the execution method, “the Constitution does not guarantee a pain-free execution,” the court stated. The district court will now make a full decision on the use of the drugs. Ohio had used a three-drug protocol before but stopped the practice in 2009 before taking it up again recently.  

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