Terry McAuliffe’s squan­dered op­por­tu­nity for com­pas­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY GENE ROSSI AND ED­WARD J. UNGVARSKY Gene Rossi is a re­tired Jus­tice De­part­ment pros­e­cu­tor. Ed­ward J. Ungvarsky is a ca­reer pub­lic de­fender based in Vi­enna who rep­re­sents de­fen­dants pros­e­cuted in Vir­ginia on capital mur­der charges.

Wil­liam Charles Morva was put to death be­cause our le­gal sys­tem failed him. When Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) de­nied Morva cle­mency on July 6, he ap­par­ently mis­un­der­stood the facts about Morva’s men­tal ill­ness and squan­dered an op­por­tu­nity for com­pas­sion.

When the gov­er­nor re­fused to in­ter­vene, he missed a chance to ex­er­cise a solemn con­sti­tu­tional duty to save Morva’s life. In a case that cried out for mercy, McAuliffe dis­re­garded that the sen­tenc­ing ju­rors never heard the com­pelling ev­i­dence of Morva’s long-stand­ing, de­bil­i­tat­ing men­tal ill­ness. Although Morva’s death is an ir­re­versible mis­take, he should not die in vain.

Death should be an ex­traor­di­nary, rare pun­ish­ment. U.S. and Vir­ginia laws re­flect the cen­turies-old bedrock prin­ci­ples that a death sen­tence is ex­cep­tional and that mercy alone is al­ways rea­son enough to avoid the death penalty.

Ju­rors are not only al­lowed but also re­quired to fol­low their in­di­vid­ual moral judg­ment in de­ter­min­ing whether death is the ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment. The gov­er­nor, in wield­ing his awe­some power to grant or deny cle­mency, car­ries that same obli­ga­tion. Vir­ginia’s con­sti­tu­tion pro­vides the gov­er­nor the un­re­stricted power to com­mute capital pun­ish­ment to life in prison.

If McAuliffe had fully un­der­stood Morva’s dis­ease, he would have surely spared Morva’s life. In 2006, be­liev­ing him­self to be the tar­get of a sprawl­ing con­spir­acy to kill him through abu­sive prison con­di­tions, Morva es­caped from a jail where he awaited trial on felony charges and killed two pub­lic-safety of­fi­cers. If told lit­tle more than these facts, a jury might un­der­stand­ably have lit­tle sym­pa­thy for Morva.

But what ju­rors never got to hear was tes­ti­mony from a psy­chi­a­trist — placed on the case in 2014 — that Morva suf­fered from a treat­able, schizophre­nia-like ill­ness with psy­chotic fea­tures and was men­tally in­com­pe­tent to par­tic­i­pate in his le­gal pro­ceed­ings.

This psy­chi­a­trist could have re­lated to ju­rors what scores of Morva’s fam­ily mem­bers and friends re­ported to her: They had watched Morva’s men­tal health pre­cip­i­tously de­cline in the years be­fore the crimes and had seen his un­treated ill­ness worsen for the re­main­der of his life. Morva’s mother and oth­ers re­ported how, for years, he re­fused to take vis­its or calls from her and his lawyers, be­liev­ing them all to be part of the grand con­spir­acy. Ju­rors also did not hear that Morva be­lieved his be­hav­ior was sav­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes, nor that he sub­sisted on a diet of raw meat and pine cones while living in the woods bare­foot in the win­ter. The ex­perts at Morva’s trial never learned, or both­ered to learn, about Morva’s de­bil­i­tat­ing delu­sions.

In­stead, ju­rors heard only that Morva’s “odd be­liefs” re­sulted from a per­son­al­ity dis­or­der that the pros­e­cu­tion as­serted was un­treat­able and made him likely to kill again. Given the sparse, in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion be­fore them, the ju­rors un­sur­pris­ingly sen­tenced Morva to die.

The de­tails of Morva’s de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness from his fam­ily, friends and psy­chi­a­trist would have been pow­er­ful ev­i­dence — had the ju­rors ever heard it.

Faced with this new and clearly rel­e­vant ev­i­dence, the state chose to ig­nore it, never seek­ing an ex­pert to con­sider what wit­nesses said and to review the psy­chi­a­trist’s find­ings.

Oddly, the gov­er­nor’s state­ment deny­ing cle­mency re­lied on the fact that the psy­chi­a­trist’s post-trial di­ag­no­sis con­flicted with the tes­ti­mony ju­rors heard at trial. But that is pre­cisely the point: Ju­rors never heard the ob­ser­va­tions of se­vere symp­toms that any­one who crossed Morva’s path in the years be­fore the crime would have seen and the in­formed opin­ion of a qual­i­fied doc­tor. Rather, the ex­perts at trial re­lied on out­dated in­for­ma­tion about Morva’s child­hood long be­fore his symp­toms be­gan.

In short, the trial ev­i­dence painted a grossly in­ac­cu­rate pic­ture of Morva’s life and true self. Be­fore Morva’s delu­sions be­gan, friends, class­mates and fam­ily de­scribed acts of care and love to­ward them and oth­ers. The ju­rors never got to hear of Morva — a young man, like oth­ers, of char­ac­ter and prom­ise — as McAuliffe did.

In deny­ing cle­mency, the gov­er­nor asked, “Does Morva de­serve to live?”In­stead, he should have asked, “Do I, in my per­sonal moral judg­ment, think the state proved it has the right to take this life?” The right ques­tion would have led McAuliffe to reach a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion and to spare Morva’s life.

Ap­ply­ing mercy to capital cases reaf­firms our com­mon be­liefs in the rule of law and in the dig­nity and value of ev­ery per­son re­gard­less of what he or she has done.

MATT GEN­TRY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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