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).