I am a very proud and enthusiastic Virginian. In my free time, I enjoy getting into arguments about how it is by far the superior of the fifty states. However, this morning I am disappointed in my Old Dominion. I am disappointed in my Governor Terry McAuliffe. I am disappointed in the legal system, the underwhelming mental health support, and the string of misinformation, miscommunication, and uncertainty that ultimately led to William Morva’s lethal injection on July 6, 2017 at 9pm. He was pronounced dead at 9:15, after the three-drug chemical cocktail exhausted itself.
The timeline of the case is clear. Morva was arrested on August 18, 2005 for the attempted armed robbery of a Deli Mart in Blacksburg, VA. While awaiting trial on August 20th, Morva knocked deputy Russel Quesenberry unconscious and took his gun. He then proceeded to shoot and kill the hospital security guard running to Quesenberry’s aid, Derrick McFarland. This initiated a manhunt for Morva, who had escaped armed. The morning of the 21st, Morva shot and killed sheriff's deputy, Cpl. Eric Sutphin on a hiking trail close to the Virginia Tech Campus. Classes were cancelled and campus was closed until Morva was found later that afternoon, hiding in the bushes close to the site of Sutphin’s shooting. On March 13, 2008 Morva was sentenced to death, found guilty for two counts of capital murder and one account of attempted murder with a firearm. After a lengthy appeals process, his execution date was set for Thursday, July 6, 2017 (1).
I'd like to take a moment for clarity’s sake. The deaths of Russel Quesenberry and Cpl.Eric Sutphin are tragic. There is no but. There is no however. My heart goes out to them and their families. I am very familiar with the Virginia Tech environment and its surrounding Blacksburg area. The community has suffered through many violent tragedies. Their hearts were and are heavy for the victims. I cannot begin to imagine how heart wrenching Quesenberry and Sutphin’s deaths are for their loved ones.
I’m not objecting to his murder charges. I’m objecting to the death penalty as a response to his murder charges. More specifically, I’m objecting to the state’s ability to execute mentally ill prisoners. Morva was mentally ill. He dropped out of his Blacksburg high school in 2000, and his mental health began to deteriorate. He was finally diagnosed with delusional disorder during his appeals process. Morva, a man who had been unable to tell reality from delusion for years, was prone to “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 (2).” Despite these alarming tendencies, the lower court found no evidence of a “true mental illness (3).” The mental health experts who testified at his case characterized his condition merely as “odd beliefs (4).” And the jury sentenced him to death before he was officially diagnosed with delusional disorder. And that was that. William Morva’s mental health was left to deteriorate for nearly 7 years in prison. He was lethally injected with little to no grip on reality, having never received mental health treatment or medication apart from weekly monitoring in prison.
Governor McAuliffe graduated from Catholic University, where I am currently in my second year of undergraduate studies. He “personally opposes” the death penalty, but in regard to these cases, McAuliffe has crafted a convenient and inconsistent people pleaser: “I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied (5).” Pro-life with conditions, McAuliffe seems to value life on a sliding-scale. Bombarded with petitions from concerned mental health experts (two of which came from the UN), McAuliffe remained convinced that Morva had received a fair trial (6,7).
My response to Morva’s execution is a simple one. I am dissatisfied with our legal system’s archaic eye-for-an-eye response to murder. I am saddened that in Virginia, and in 26 other states, killing begets killing. Violence begets violence. I have been reading the emotionally charged responses to Morva’s case all day. Those who passionately support his execution seem to be confusing justice with vengeance. They seem to favor government for its retribution tactics, discounting effectiveness for revenge.
What’s worse is the chemical cocktail I mentioned above. Morva was injected with the Virginia lethal injection drug, a three-drug concoction of midazolam, rocuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. None of these three drugs can render the prisoner unconscious. Therefore, the prisoners are aware and likely experience extreme pain. The cause of death after injection is usually acute pulmonary edema. That is to say, Morva most likely died by drowning due to a buildup of froth and blood in his lungs (8). What does it say about our society when pain and violence like this satisfies us? Did Morva receive justice? How can the killings of Russel Quesenberry and Cpl.Eric Sutphin be brought to justice through more killing? Their families deserve a better justice than the very violence that robbed them of their loved ones.
I would like to call on the state of Virginia to exercise real and effective justice. I would like to call on all of the United States to ditch retributive punishment systems-- to stop killing people as a solution to crime. Whether politicians and voters like it or not, criminals are still people. Criminals like William Morva did not surrender their humanity when they committed their crimes. I will always urge Virginia to be just and fair in their application of the law, however; killing for killing's sake is never just or fair.
Virginia, with this recent case and the new information circulating about our killing cocktail, you are at the forefront of the capital punishment debate. In the face of relevance, you have the unique ability to speak out against this injustice and steer justice along a more peaceful path. Virginia, make me proud again.
(1) Greg Esposito, Tim Thornton, Tonia Moxley, Albert Raboteau, Michael Sluss and Amy L. Kovac, “Details Released on Morva's Flight, More News on the Aftermath of a Deadly Escape and Manhunt,” The Roanoke Times, August 22, 2006, accessed July 11, 2017, https://wayback.archiveit.org/all/20080422004014/http://www.roanoke.com/wb/79269
(2) Tracy Connor, “Murdered Deputy’s Daughter Fights Execution of Killer William Morva,” NBC News, July 5, 2017, accessed July 6, 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/planned-execution-william-morva-stirs-mental-illness-debate-n779341
(4) Austin Sarat, “Stop Executing the Mentally Ill,” U.S. News & World Report, June 28, 2017, accessed July 11, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/opinion/op-ed/articles/2017-06-28/as-william-morva-case-shows-america-should-stop-executing-the-mentally-ill
(5) Terry McAuliffe, “Governor McAuliffe Statement on the Execution of William Morva,” Virginia.Gov, July 6, 2017, accessed July 6, 2017, https://governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/newsarticle?articleId=20611
(6) Austin Sarat, “Stop Executing the Mentally Ill,” U.S. News & World Report
(7) Terry McAuliffe, "Governor McAuliffe Statement on the Execution of William Morva," Virginia.Gov
(8) Ed Pilkington, “Virginia Set to Execute Man Using 'Potentially Torturous' Drug Cocktail,” Guardian News & Media, July 5, 2017, accessed July 11, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/05/virginia-execution-death-penalty-midazolam