true crime

Virginia Will Execute a Mentally Ill Man Tonight

As part of a new state protocol, William Morva will be injected with a controversial chemical in a process not fully visible to witnesses.

Allie Conti

Murder defendant William Morva, right, listens as one of his defense attorney Tom Blaylock, left, interviews prospective jurors in Washington County Circuit Court in Abingdon Va. Tuesday March 4 2008. (AP Photo / Matt Gentry, POOL)

William Morva went to jail with a reputation as a particularly ineffectual criminal.

In 2005, the Virginian was arrested after showing up at a grocery store he apparently intended to rob and then walking away when he realized the doors were locked. A clerk called the cops, leading to Morva's arrest, along with that of an accomplice. Morva was hospitalized before going on trial—for multiple botched stick-up jobs—and managed to steal a gun from a cop prior to killing a security guard. He also shot and killed a sheriff's deputy before being arrested in a ditch.

On Thursday, the 35-year-old is scheduled to die by lethal injection. His advocates say the controversial punishment is particularly egregious in Morva's case because the jury that convicted him was not told he's unable to separate delusion from reality. (The state maintains he merely suffers from personality disorders, as disclosed at trial.) What's more, his lethal injection is also set to include a sedative with a reputation for leaving inmates screaming in agony during their final moments.

But perhaps most remarkable, as the Associated Press reports, is that the public won't even be able to see key moments before Morva's death. It's just the latest chapter in America's long love affair with killing convicts, often in the least transparent way possible.


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In the past, witnesses would have been able to see a Virginia prisoner walk into the execution chamber and get strapped down. A curtain might obscure the actual insertion of the IV, but at least witnesses would hear the condemned inmate's last words before any chemicals went through those tubes. But as a result of a recent change to Virginia's execution protocol, media members and attorneys will only catch a glimpse of Morva after the IV is inserted.

"This is being done in the public's name and they have a right to know if the execution is proceeding in a way that violates the constitution," an attorney for Morva told the AP.

At least part of the concern over the protocol change stems from the fact that several high-profile executions have gone horribly wrong in recent years, and increased secrecy could potentially be a way to curtail public outcry if trouble arises during Morva's final moments.

American's fondness for capital punishment has been complicated by a major shortfall in execution drugs over the past decade. Intent on keeping things on schedule, a handful of states in recent years have tried out a new cocktail that includes midazolam, a common sedative that's supposed to knock people out for a painless death. But in January 2014, a Ohio man who was given the drug "struggled and gasped" for longer than was typical, according to the New York Times.

That was just the beginning.

Another Oklahoma inmate who received an injection of a cocktail including midazolam in April of that year "blew" a vein and suffered such a brutal death that curtains had to be closed for witnesses. That same July, an Arizona prisoner who was given midazolam took almost two hours to die, even though lethal injection normally takes around 15 minutes.

The US Supreme Court eventually decided to weigh in on whether use of the sedative constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," but the justices ultimately decided midazolam was fair game in a 5–4 decision. Samuel Alito, for his part, blamed anti-death penalty activists for causing the drug shortage in the first place and for forcing states to use midazolam as an alternative.

Robert Blecker, a death penalty advocate who teaches at New York Law School, told me Thursday that America shouldn't be using drugs at all and should stick to the tried and true method of the firing squad. Except, that is, for the traditional part where one shooter has blanks in their gun, so no one knows who actually fired the fatal shot. That way, Becker reasons, Americans would at least be honest about what's going on when the criminal justice system kills someone.

"Lethal injection medicalizes what it should be an unambiguous punishment," Blecker told me. "The fact that the FDA is approving these drugs is ridiculous because they're poisons. These people want a painless death that looks like a medical procedure."

(Some states have, in fact, flirted with a return to the firing squad in recent years.)

As people continue to debate whether drugs like midazolam should be injected into wards of the state, the family of the slain sheriff's deputy in the Virginia case is still divided over whether Morva should be executed at all. Eric E. Sutphin's mother has said only the death penalty will give her a sense of justice, while his daughter wrote Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is perhaps best known as a longtime supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, asking him to grant clemency.

"I am against the death penalty for religious and moral reasons," she wrote the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an email. "I have fought and will continue to fight for clemency for all death row inmates until Virginia declares the death penalty unconstitutional."

On Thursday afternoon, McAuliffe's office released a statement clarifying that the execution would go ahead as scheduled at 9 PM local time.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

Lede image: Murder defendant William Morva, right, listens as one of his defense attorney Tom Blaylock, left, interviews prospective jurors in Washington County Circuit Court in Abingdon Va. Tuesday March 4 2008. (AP Photo \u002F Matt Gentry, POOL)

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