As Governor Terry McAuliffe prepares to leave office, he is faced with yet another plea from lawyers for a man scheduled to be executed in July. 34 year old William Morva was convicted of a double murder in Blacksburg, but doctors now say he suffered from a mental illness that compelled him to kill – a fact not shared with the jury.
People who knew William Morva, growing up in Richmond and Blacksburg, say he was a great kid.
“He had a wide circle of friends when he was younger, and they describe him as this incredibly loving young man, generous defender of the underdog – the kind of guy who would run up to you and give you a hug,” says attorney Dawn Davison.
Later, she recalls, Morva showed signs of mental illness. He was convinced, for example, that he suffered from a serious intestinal disease.
“In order to treat that he has used a very odd diet over the years," Davison says. " When he was free, he would eat raw meat or nearly raw meat in large quantities, large quantities of cheese, at times trying a diet that consisted of nuts and berries and pine cones – the sorts of things that you and I think, ‘That can’t possibly help a stomach disorder.’”
He dropped out of high school, believing he was on an important mission.
“The mission has been described differently over time as either saving the world or saving certain indigenous populations in the world," his lawyer explains. "He believed that he would come upon a secret tribe or a hidden tribe in South America, and that they would recognize him as somebody who has come to save them.”
At the same time, she claims, he was convinced enemies were out to get him.
“He believed that the Bush administration was somehow in cahoots with the Blacksburg police department, and that they were targeting him.”
In 2005, police did arrest Morva, charging him with attempted armed robbery.
“He and a couple of other young men had gone up to a convenience store," Davison says. "The doors did not automatically open because the store was closed, and they left. The clerk inside saw them and called the police, and he was arrested later that night. They had masks on, and they were armed. It was not the most well thought out of plans.”
His father had died, and his mother was raising four other kids. She couldn’t afford bail, so Morva spent a year behind bars, awaiting trial. Davison claims the Montgomery County Jail was over crowded, at times exceeding capacity by 200%, and she says there were limited resources for medical care.
Convinced that his prison diet would lead to death, Morva begged to see a doctor, and eventually he was taken to a local hospital.
“After he is seen by the medical staff, he overpowers the guard who escorted him," Davison recalls. "He takes the guard’s gun, and on the way out, he shoots a hospital security guard.”
A manhunt ensued, and a sheriff’s deputy who encountered Morva on the Huckleberry Trail in Blacksburg was also shot and killed. It was a terrible tragedy, and attorney Davison doesn’t deny great harm to the victims’ families, but she and her colleagues at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center point out that the jury didn’t know about Morva’s true mental state.
“Jurors were told that he had a personality disorder, that he was just kind of an odd guy, that he had odd beliefs, and they were specifically told he didn’t have delusions," the attorney says. "Odd beliefs can be changed by clear evidence or rational argument, and delusions are just immutable in the face of those things.”
That’s why the center is asking Governor McAuliffe to commute Morva's sentence from death to life in prison, and to ask the Virginia Department of Corrections to begin treating him with anti-psychotic drugs. Historically, Virginia has executed more people than any other state, and in modern times we’re right behind Texas for the most executions.