Stop Executing the Severely Mentally Ill

Dale Brumfield

by Dale M. Brumfield

While Governor Terry McAuliffe’s commutation of the death penalty to life in prison for the mentally ill William Burns was welcome, the fact that the governor in July also allowed the execution of the equally mentally deficient William Morva shows the need for a fair and consistent law.

Diagnosed with delusional disorder, William Morva committed his crimes while under the delusional paranoia of his mental illness, including the belief that President George W. Bush was conspiring with local law enforcement officers to have him killed. Despite this, the jurors who sentenced Morva to death were told during the trial only that he had “odd beliefs” about the world.

His execution raises a basic bipartisan request: It is time that Virginia lawmakers pass a severe mental illness exemption to the death penalty.

These illnesses, such as schizophrenia and the disorder that afflicted Morva, are characterized by hallucinations and delusions which make it difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction. These characteristics make people with psychiatric disabilities often unable to control or understand the consequences of their behavior. People with severe mental illnesses experience these symptoms, not out of voluntary choice, but as a consequence of their diagnosable medical condition.

These involuntary conditions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people in our society. Low-income Virginians are less likely to have stable access to mental health services, and subsequently suffer from higher rates of untreated mental illness. Veterans are similarly affected, as the RAND Corporation has found that a staggering 20% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

The United States Supreme Court has already recognized that the death penalty should be reserved only for the “worst of the worst.” Indeed, it ruled against the practice of executing juveniles and individuals with intellectual disabilites, finding that their impairments reduce their moral culpability. Similarly, and due to their unique conditions, people with mental illnesses also have reduced moral responsibility for their actions. Human decency should make it obvious that defendants with severe mental illnesses should not be considered the “worst of the worst” in our society.

It is obvious that Virginia’s existing legal safeguards aren’t enough to protect this vulnerable population and are too prone to the whims of a prosecutor, a jury or the Governor. Mental illness is often seen by prosecutors and juries as something that heightens, rather than lessens, the accused’s level of guilt and responsibility. Studies have even indicated that jurors sometimes see mental illness as a reason to vote for, rather than against, death. Correcting this backwardness of our admittedly outdated death penalty system is critical.

To be clear, this proposed legislation would not have enabled William Morva, William Burns or anyone with similar conditions, to “fake” mental illness to avoid punishment. It is strictly defined to exempt only individuals diagnosed with the most serious and consequential disorders. Under this law, Morva, Burns and defendants like them would still face a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. This exemption still does justice to victims and their family members, while respecting community demands of decency and the Constitution.

“[Burns] will not evade punishment,” McAuliffe said in a statement, “he will be incarcerated for the remainder of his life … in my view this is the only just and reasonable course.”

According to Public Policy Polling, over half of Americans oppose the execution of people with severe mental illness. It is hoped that in the upcoming 2018 General Assembly session our lawmakers recognize this consensus in the law. Decency and justice demand that we fairly and consistently spare those with severe mental illness from the ultimate punishment.

Dale Brumfield is Field Director for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP) and the author of “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History” (Arcadia, 2017).

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11 responses to “Stop Executing the Severely Mentally Ill

  1. It’s my understanding that Virginia law permits an insanity defense when the defendant shows one of three factors were present. A recent law review article includes the following: “Currently, Virginia courts use ‘a combination of the M’Naghten and the irresistible impulse insanity tests,’ requiring the defendant to prove that they “did not understand the nature, character, and consequences of the act, or was unable to distinguish right from wrong, or was driven by an irresistible impulse to commit the act.'”

    Realizing this is hard to prove, as it should be, when we are dealing with outrageous murders (the worst of the worst), why is the existing Virginia law unacceptable? What standard should a jury use to decide when a person is not guilty by reason of insanity? Or, if guilty, not deserving of the death penalty? And what about the victim’s rights? And his/her family’s and friends? Can’t a defendant waive the right to a jury trial?

    With all due respect (and I accept you are very sincere in your beliefs), I am very troubled by your statement “It is obvious that Virginia’s existing legal safeguards aren’t enough to protect this vulnerable population and are too prone to the whims of a prosecutor, a jury or the Governor. ” To me, you are (perhaps unintentionally) elevating the status of a convicted murder with that of the dead person.

    Taken as a whole, the post (which is very well written and sincere) seems to be an attempt to chip away at the death penalty despite centuries of legal precedent bit by bit.

  2. I may be exposing some of my own ignorance but I think that many folks that are part of the criminal justice system – whether it’s the police, the prosecutors , jurors, etc… see someone they view as a threat to others (regardless of mental state) and they don’t want to be responsible for letting perpetrators slip through legal loopholes to escape and do damage to others again. Do no harm – not to the perpetrator but to his potential future victims.

    if they have to choose between doing an injustice to the guy who already harmed others – and more future “others” harmed.. they choose to not let more harm be done to others.

    They just want someone who is a real threat to others to be put away – the how and why of it…mental or otherwise, is not as important as the possibility that if you give the benefit of the doubt – the perpetrator of the original harm is let loose once again.

    I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who had misgivings when On July 27, 2016, a federal judge ruled that Hinckley would be allowed to be released from St. Elizabeths on August 5, as he was no longer considered a threat to himself or others.

    You never know with absolute certainty that such folks won’t go haywire again – no matter what the “experts” say… it’s never more than an “educated” guess.

    I’d almost be in favor of having specific experts with track records.. so you’d know that a particular expert had a 95% success record…and we’d weed out the ones with crappy opinions.. some way to give some level of assurance that jurors could take a reasonable chance.. to give the perpetrator a second chance. Of course.. in this area of the law – a two-time offender is done.

    okay… so tell me how wrong I am…

  3. I have seen the irresistible impulse defense used successfully in a Virginia court, at least until a later re-trial, and that was almost 40 years ago. (It was also a form of the famous “the bastard had it coming” defense – a wonderful trial!) Absent more information I would wonder why the jury in that particular case was given so little information about the reported delusions. I am expecting a mental illness defense in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacist, given news reports said he was off his meds for schizophrenia. Not sure if the defense has made that decision, or has to, at this point.

    My particular solution to the moral dilemma posed by the death penalty is to limit its application to second offenses or multiple murders. If you kill once, and then do so again, a few seconds later or years later, or with premeditation kill more than one, execution should be all but mandatory. One chance at redemption is enough.

    • I’m not sure about the death penalty myself but then again I think 24/7 lockdown is torture than more often than not actually does engender mental illness…

      Society deserves to not have violent folks unleashed on them but that does not mean we should kill them – physically or virtually either..

      I just don’t like seeing killers released to kill again.. and like Steve, I really don’t care what their “problem” is because at the point they’ve harmed others again – is enough.

      Of course the fact that we imprison more people in this country than any other country – even 3rd world and authoritarian and despots.. is not good.

  4. There have been numerous cases of convicted felons on Death Row being exonerated through DNA evidence. In other words, the system’s supposed safeguards and appeals failed and the state was ready to execute a person who did not commit the crime for which he was convicted.

    A good conservative understands that it costs more to execute a convict than to keep the prisoner in jail for the rest of their lives. Good conservatives should oppose the death penalty.

    A good Christian knows that the commandment stating “Thou Shall Not Kill” was not written with an asterisk exempting the government from killing a captured and safely institutionalized prisoner. Good Christians should oppose the death penalty.

    A good libertarian knows that government should be as small as possible and exercise the minimal power required to maintain an orderly and prosperous society. Good libertarians should oppose the death penalty.

    A good member of the Iconoclast Party (of which I am the only current member) watched the OJ Simpson trial are saw the depth of corruption and incompetence within the law enforcement, prosecution and defense teams. Good members of the Iconoclast Party oppose the death penalty because government in America is chronically corrupt and should not have the power to kill people who are safely incarcerated.

    Finally, does anybody really think that 12 average people pulled off the street for jury duty can correctly decide whether a defendant is insane or sane based on some questions asked in a courtroom and the testimony of a few so-called “experts”?

    • I had a Catholic education from K through college & never heard a single statement that capital punishment is wrong per se or must be opposed, including during discussions of the subject. A number of theologians from many denominations have justified it over the centuries. John Calvin for instance.

      I heard a number of personal arguments against capital punishment, which I respect. I can understand legislators voting to repeal capital punishment and vice versa. The Pope and his cronies are making up doctrine. A lot of clergy from other denominations are doing the same thing.

      • Thomas Aquinas & Martin Luther too.

      • geeze TMT – I thought Catholics (that I was brought up also).. DO subscribe to the Ten Commandments! No?

        • You are correct. But most religions are also guided by the writings of theologians as well. Jewish scholars over centuries have written voluminous commentary on the Torah that is intended to guide the faithful.

          Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well as Aristotle, have informed Catholic teaching on many issues, including the “just war doctrine,” self defense and capital punishment. I studied them and their writings as part of my education. Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s writings have informed the Lutheran Church and Calvinist Churches respectfully. They each have concluded that, in appropriate circumstances, capital punishment is licit.

          I have no problem with individuals of all faiths (or no faith) opposing the imposition of capital punishment. I have no trouble with religious and church leaders opposing the death penalty. But they cannot honestly hang their hat on traditional theology to justify their opinion. And if they are, they’re essentially arguing that previous generations of theologians and religious ministers were either heretics or apostates. I’ll hang my hat on Augustine and Aquinas over the guy from Argentina any day.

  5. interesting chart:

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