Stop Executing The Mentally Ill

William Morva's case shows why America shouldn't use the death penalty against those who suffer from mental illness.
William Morva
William Morva

On July 6, 2017, William Morva is scheduled to join countless others who suffered from serious mental illness yet were put to death in America. His case has made headlines as legislatures across the country are now considering whether to stop executing the mentally ill.

Morva brutally murdered two people in Virginia in 2006: one an unarmed security guard and the other a sheriff’s deputy. At the time of the killings, he was being held for another crime. While in jail he became convinced that someone was torturing him and intentionally withholding medical care. Morva thought that the only way to save his life was to escape. The murders he committed were part of his attempt to flee.

Mental health experts testified at his trial that he suffered from a so-called “schizotypal personality disorder,” a condition characterized by “odd beliefs.” However, only later, a more comprehensive investigation of his history revealed that Morva had been suffering from delusional disorder. People with this condition believe and act in accordance with “realities” that are not true. It is a serious mental illness.

Talking about those we condemn to death, noted death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean said, “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?’” That is the question Virginia faces as it gets ready to execute Morva.

But Morva’s is not an isolated case. Mental Health America, an advocacy group, estimates that 5 to 10 percent of America’s 2,900 death row inmates suffer from mental illnesses of various kinds.

Many people equate those diseases with insanity, which is a barrier to conviction and punishment. But they are not the same things. To successfully mount an insanity defense, whose precise definition varies from state to state, defendants must prove that they “did not understand what they were doing; failed to know right from wrong; [or, in a few states] acted on an uncontrollable impulse.” Mentally ill people may know what they are doing and the difference between right and wrong but nonetheless have a distorted understanding of the world in which they act.

The law’s difficulty in addressing mental illness in capital cases arises, in part, from the very breadth of that category. It covers a broad spectrum of disabilities (depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), which “disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.” Just as psychologists can differentiate psychosis from neurosis, the law can and should pay special heed to mental illnesses which are significantly disabling to those who have them.

Killers who suffer from diseases like paranoia or schizophrenia may think that their victims are out to get them. A delusional individual may believe that a murderous act is self-defense, just as a psychotic person may lash out violently in fear of some imagined harm.

This does not mean that they should not be punished, but it does suggest that they may not be sufficiently blameworthy to deserve a death sentence. Yet, the Supreme Court has never found any constitutional problem with executing the severely mentally ill.

Over the past decade, the court has excluded from death eligibility people with intellectual disabilities of a sort sufficient to render them “mentally retarded,” as well as murderers under the age of 18. Mental retardation, the court said, “diminishes personal culpability, even if the offender can distinguish right from wrong.” It explained that the “impairments [of mentally retarded offenders] make it less defensible to impose the death penalty as retribution for past crimes” and less likely that the death penalty will have a real deterrent effect.

The court later found that juvenile offenders suffer from what it called ”[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” People under 18 are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures,” and “the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult.” The court concluded that, “These differences render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders.”

The closest the court has come to ruling on capital punishment’s suitability for people whose crime was a product of mental illness was a 2007 decision. It said that no one can be executed unless they can fully understand the reason for their imminent execution. ”[G]ross delusions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “stemming from a severe mental disorder may put that awareness [of a link between a crime and its punishment] in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose.”

Kennedy’s ruling is salutary, but it does not go far enough. What is true for children and the mentally retarded, namely that they are not among the “worst offenders,” is also true of those suffering from serious mental illnesses.

The failure to recognize this is not just the Supreme Court’s. Although eight states are currently considering bills to prohibit execution of people with mental illnesses, and although a vote on such a measure is expected in Ohio this fall, no state with the death penalty currently forbids it.

This likely comes as a surprise to many Americans, a substantial majority of whom oppose executing the mentally ill. A national survey conducted in 2014 found that 58 percent of respondents opposed the death penalty for persons with mental illness; only 28 percent favored it. Opposition cut across party lines, with a majority of Democrats (62 percent), Republicans (59 percent) and independents (51 percent) all indicating they did not support capital punishment for the mentally ill.

Morva’s lawyers are seeking clemency from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Whether or not it is granted, we will still be left with the question of whether the death penalty should ever be imposed on those whose crimes result from conditions like paranoia or delusion.

It is time for legislators and judges to catch up with the American people and put an end to the practice of executing anyone who is severely mentally ill.

Previously published by US News, June 28, 2107.