As Maria MacBain stepped onto the witness stand at the 2008 trial of William Morva, she felt a wave of intimidation. The historic courthouse building in Abingdon, Virginia, had “one of these old, old-school courtrooms where the judge is sitting way up high in front of you,” she remembers. The attorneys who called her had done little to ease her nerves; they seemed to lack confidence themselves, barely preparing her for what she was supposed to do. Now, with the judge and jurors staring down at her, the task of discussing her friend, a convicted double-murderer, felt daunting.
Less than two years earlier, in August 2006, 24-year-old William Morva had fatally shot two people during an escape from the Montgomery County Jail near Blacksburg, Virginia. Morva had been awaiting trial on armed robbery charges when he was admitted with minor injuries to a local emergency room after midnight. At the hospital, he asked the deputy escorting him if he could use the bathroom; when the officer tried to check on him, Morva knocked him out with a toilet paper dispenser he had ripped off the wall. He stole the officer’s gun, a loaded .40-caliber Glock, shot an unarmed security guard named Derrick McFarland, and fled. During a manhunt the next day, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Cpl. Eric Sutphin rode his bicycle to a popular nature path called Huckleberry Trail, where there had been a reported sighting of a man who looked disheveled, wrapped in a blanket and wearing only boxers. When Sutphin came upon him, Morva shot him in the head.
The community of Blacksburg revolves around Virginia Tech, a major university that doubles the city’s population when classes are in session. The scenic college town sits at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is known for its quality of life. But less than a year after Morva’s escape, Blacksburg was rocked by an even bloodier nightmare, the slaughter of 32 people in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. Several victims of the Virginia Tech massacre were brought to the same hospital where McFarland had been shot. To avoid further publicity — and amid a roaring national debate over guns and mental illness — Montgomery County Circuit Judge Ray Grubbs granted a rare change of venue for Morva, moving his trial to neighboring Washington County, just north of the Tennessee state line.
The jury swiftly found Morva guilty of multiple counts of capital murder. Now it was onto the sentencing phase, where jurors would decide whether to give him the death penalty or life without parole. There had been a lot of heart-wrenching testimony already that day. The victims were not just respected law enforcement officers, they were beloved husbands and fathers. McFarland’s widow, Cindy, said she had lost the only person in the world she could really confide in, the “father to my son that was not his,” but who McFarland had raised as his own. Tamara Sutphin testified that her late husband, Eric, lost his own dad when he was 2 and often sought reassurance that he was doing a good job being a father to their twin daughters. “I think he wanted to make sure that they had what he didn’t,” she said.
MacBain was one of a handful of people there to humanize Morva. Like many old friends who were shocked at his violent acts, she felt a different, bewildering kind of loss, along with a gnawing guilt about falling out of touch with him. She had known for a while that Morva was not quite OK. But she never imagined he would spiral into such a dangerous place.
“William was always very, very caring,” MacBain testified. She had met him at Blacksburg High School, she said, where they ran in the same group of friends — creative kids, active in theater and the art club. Morva was known for being quirky but kind — a pacifist committed to social justice, active in Amnesty International and a school club called AWARE, which advocated on behalf of disenfranchised groups. “He was always very compassionate towards people who were having a hard time,” she said. He was especially concerned about the plight of Native Americans. In fact, MacBain later told me, he had helped lead an effort to change the name of the school mascot, which was then the Blacksburg Indians. In a short film clip from that time, featured on a website created by his supporters, a teenage Morva turns the camera on himself to explain why he opposed the name: “I think it’s racist and I don’t like it.” He’s smiling in the video, his eyes darting around with a playful intensity. By the time of his trial in 2008, the intensity had become a wildness that MacBain did not recognize.
On the stand, MacBain waited for defense attorneys to ask her about this transformation. It had been impossible to miss — everyone who knew Morva could tell some version of it: How he became obsessed with his health problems, both real and imagined. How he missed so much of his senior year of high school that he dropped out just short of graduation. How his family moved from Blacksburg to Richmond but he refused, becoming a “fixture” on the streets downtown, a rootless eccentric hanging out at the historic Lyric Theater or a coffee shop named Bollo’s, where he engaged people in political debates.
As his classmate Adam Breske recalled on the phone, Morva described grand plans, which were mostly far-fetched. “He’d usually be barefoot, because that was his thing after high school, and then he’d tell you about either how he had moved out of his apartment and was living in a tent in the woods because it made more sense to him, or he wanted to move to Israel to work on a kibbutz. And you’d just go down the rabbit hole with him and talk to him about it. In retrospect, it seems like the ramblings of a person who’s deteriorating, but in the moment, it just seemed like an eccentric outlook on his future.”
Eventually, Morva’s behavior became off-putting. “His viewpoints started to get so entrenched that you couldn’t discuss things with him, even things that were clearly not logical,” MacBain says. He claimed to have singular insights into the universe — a belief that gave way to a mission to save civilization. He used to hate guns, but he began carrying a pistol, convinced that the government was after him. His apparent delusions culminated after Morva was arrested in August 2005 for trying to rob a convenience store. He became distressed, adamant that he was going to die in jail and had to escape by any means necessary. After nearly a year behind bars, Morva did exactly that, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
If there were any chance of convincing the jury to spare Morva’s life, it would be critical to contextualize his crimes, to explain how they were inextricably linked to his mental problems. Indeed, during opening statements, his defense attorney promised to address the “why” of his actions. But answers never came. “The questions that we were asked as character witnesses were really weak,” MacBain recalls. “They kind of tried to establish that he was a nice guy in high school. Well, that’s great, but when you’ve been already hearing several days of evidence that he committed these crimes, that doesn’t really sway anybody.” The jurors never heard how Morva went from a free-spirited teenager to a brooding, paranoid man, trapped in what one friend would later describe as a “fantasy land.” No relatives were called to discuss the history of abuse in his home, or the mental illness that existed on both sides of the family — critical mitigating evidence for jurors to consider.
The penalty phase lasted only one day. Jurors quickly sentenced Morva to death. At his formal sentencing, dressed in a red prison jumpsuit, Morva delivered an angry rant, his long hair and beard giving him a feral, frightening quality. He said his name was not William Morva, but Nemo — “a slave name.” Even if he was killed, he said, “there are others like me and I hope you know that and soon they’re going to get together. They’re going to sweep over your whole civilization and they’re going to wipe these smiles off of your faces forever.”
This past May, the state of Virginia set an execution date for Morva. Unless Gov. Terry McAuliffe intervenes, he will die by lethal injection on July 6. In a clemency petition filed last week, forensic psychiatrist Donna Maddox describes her examination of Morva conducted in 2014, the most thorough evaluation to date of his symptoms and medical history. Maddox diagnosed Morva with delusional disorder, a severe mental illness he had likely suffered for years.
“Mr. Morva’s psychotic disorder played a direct role in the commission of his crimes,” a summary of the clemency petition states. During his months in jail, his “delusions caused him to believe that he was dying and that getting out of jail was the only way to save his life.” According to Maddox, Morva “does not view his actions as an escape, so much as an attempt to get away from the people who were harming him and an effort to get the proper medical help he thought he needed.” Jurors had no way of understanding his mental illness, the petition argues. If they had, they would likely have voted to spare his life.
Unlike other states, there are no clemency hearings for people facing execution in Virginia. Nor are there recommendations from the board of pardon and parole. The decision is the governor’s alone. A declared opponent of capital punishment, McAuliffe has shown he is capable of mercy. In April, he commuted the sentence of Ivan Teleguz, who faced execution for arranging a murder-for-hire, despite serious doubts about his guilt. But the contract killing of an ex-girlfriend is very different from the murder of two men in uniform, especially to a politician. For a politician with presidential aspirations like McAuliffe, the distinction is especially decisive.
Still, the crisis of mental illness among people on death row is well-documented. In 2008, the same year Morva was convicted, then-Gov. Tim Kaine blocked the execution of a man named Percy Walton over concerns about his mental illness. Lawmakers across the country have introduced bills to forbid capital punishment for the severely mentally ill, including in Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at the death penalty for the least culpable defendants over the years, from those too “incompetent” to be executed to juveniles whose brains are still developing. In Atkins v. Virginia, in 2002, the Supreme Court ostensibly banned the death penalty for people who are “mentally retarded.” But the standards for determining mental competence remain ambiguous and scattered — and states still execute people with a range of diagnosed mental problems, from borderline IQs to untreated PTSD to schizophrenia.
The prosecutors who sent Morva to die are still fighting for his execution. In a letter to the governor, the Washington Post reported last week, commonwealth’s attorney Mary Pettitt argued that it was “absurd” to discount the findings of the original trial experts. “With enough time and motivation one can always find an expert to say what you want to hear,” she wrote, “but that doesn’t mean it is true or accurate.” But Dawn Davison, an attorney with the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, argues that those experts drew conclusions based on inadequate information. A complete picture of Morva’s mental health would have led to a very different outcome, she says.
Davison first met Morva in 2009, when her office was appointed to represent him in his state post-conviction proceedings. He was her second client. “When we got the case, he had been diagnosed at trial with schizotypal personality disorder,” she said. A neuropsychologist had testified that, while the condition “does have features that it shares with schizophrenia,” it did not bring the same “overt” delusions or “disorganized thinking.” As Davison got to know Morva through phone calls and prison visits, however, the diagnosis “didn’t really cover what we were seeing.”
For starters, although he had murdered two people, Morva remained inexplicably bent on rejecting the attempted robbery charges that had sent him to jail in the first place. “It seemed like he thought that if we could undo that … it would somehow undo everything that came after, which doesn’t make sense,” Davison recalls. Morva also swore that he had no choice but to escape because he was becoming gravely ill. “I am strong but not immortal,” he had written to his mother just one month after arriving at the jail. “I am going to die,” he insisted, threatening to take a guard with him. In a phone call months later, he told her, “Somebody wants me to die and I don’t know who it is. They know my health is dwindling, OK?”
But Morva’s delusions went far beyond his time in jail. “We wound up talking to a lot of people who had never been contacted by his original counsel,” Davison says, along with those like MacBain, who “felt they didn’t have the opportunity to share all of the information that they had about William.” What they learned would comprise almost 100 affidavits, which would be included in his state habeas petition.
The affidavits are sobering. In interview after interview, friends, teachers, and family members described Morva’s downward spiral. One friend described how after the terror attacks of September 11, Morva told her about “a special team of people he was gathering to carry out some sort of plan to save the world. I was on this team, as was a girl named Leah, which William pronounced the way the name of the princess is pronounced in the Star Wars movies. I never met Leah or anyone else on the ‘team.’ In fact, I doubted whether she or others even existed.”
Several people described how his condition seemed to worsen in 2004 after the death of his father, a Hungarian immigrant much older than his wife. Morva’s father had survived the Holocaust, and his own trauma seemed to manifest itself into abuse toward his family. One former classmate remembered that Morva had sometimes been ridiculed for wearing girls’ clothing during his freshman year of high school; Morva later confessed that “his father had forced him to wear dresses to school in order to toughen him up.”
The recollections shared by Mark Williams, Morva’s best friend and longtime roommate, were particularly eye-opening. The two had met when Williams was a student at Virginia Tech — as something of a black sheep himself, he was drawn to Morva’s charisma and “non-sequitur” nature. He was also one of the few people willing to adapt to Morva’s demanding bathroom rituals. Morva had been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a relatively common condition that was only aggravated by his strange diet: pinecones, raw meat, and large hunks of cheese. His digestive issues kept him in the bathroom for hours at a time, Williams said. “I used to call it his office hours.”
It was Morva’s bathroom obsession that led to his first arrest, around 2001 or 2002. In her own affidavit, Morva’s mother described how she got a phone call from campus police, who “told me they found William, half-naked on a bathroom floor in a Virginia Tech building and that he was acting very bizarre.” It was a women’s restroom, and he had taken off his pants, later telling his mother that he could move his muscles more easily that way, an explanation she did not understand. Morva was banned from campus. After that, according to Williams, he would get routinely detained by the same cops whenever he veered too close to school. “That’s where he started to feel like the cops were always after him.”
Eventually, Williams told me, “things got weird.” After his father’s funeral — which he attended barefoot and unkempt — Morva returned to Blacksburg with a military pistol that had belonged to his dad. “There was one night when I came home and Will was in the living room with his gun, like jumping over the couches and hiding behind stuff and like pointing it at the door — like a practice scenario for an invasion or something,” Williams says. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he was just like, ‘I’m trying to train to be ready, because I feel like things are going down and people are after me.’” Soon after that, Williams asked him to move out.
Morva eventually ended up staying with his brother Michael, who would later be treated for his own mental illness. He fell in with guys who were committing petty thefts. According to Williams, Morva said he had to steal money to send back to his mother in Richmond, who he feared was destitute after the death of his father. At one point, Morva claimed she was living in her car, but his mother says that never happened. Whatever the motivation, in August 2005, Morva and another man tried to rob a local Deli Mart, wearing masks and carrying guns. They didn’t get very far. As the clerk who had closed the store would later testify, Morva approached the automatic sliding door and “cussed that the door didn’t open.” Then they left. Morva was arrested and jailed on armed robbery charges. His co-defendant cut a deal and was swiftly bailed out. But Morva stayed in the Montgomery County Jail for nearly a year.
It was the worst possible environment for Morva. At that time, the facility was severely overcrowded; overflowing cells forced men to sleep on the floor and made access to the toilet extremely difficult. The conditions would have been hard for anyone — but for Morva, they were crippling. Williams says he and a friend expressed their concerns to his attorney. “We were like, ‘Look, Will is not mentally stable.’” He needed treatment, not incarceration — or at least some kind of medication while he was in jail. “If you guys throw him in the middle of this institution,” Williams remembers warning, “it’s like a time bomb.”
Among the most active death row states in the country, Virginia stands apart in a number of ways. Its extremely restrictive state habeas system means defendants go quickly from conviction to execution; the Virginia Supreme Court, which has sole jurisdiction in reviewing habeas petitions, rarely grants evidentiary hearings, upholding convictions as a matter of course. Deadlines for filing state habeas petitions are extremely strict, and once they are denied, Virginia allows execution dates to be set even as federal habeas appeals are still underway. In a 2013 study, the American Bar Association described Virginia’s system as “designed to accelerate the rate at which capital habeas petitions are resolved, sometimes at the expense of a detailed and substantive review.”
In order to win a death sentence, prosecutors often argue that a defendant will pose a threat to society, including in prison, and defense attorneys are generally allowed to rebut such claims of “future dangerousness” through a variety of evidence, including testimony to show that confinement in a maximum security prison makes it difficult to escape or carry out violence. But not in Virginia. Morva’s defense lawyers sought to appoint Dr. Mark Cunningham, a renowned forensic psychologist, to challenge the state’s insistence that their client, having escaped before, would be a continuing threat to those around him. But the request was repeatedly denied.
This denial was at the heart of Morva’s petition for a writ for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Virginia Supreme Court has “repeatedly held that any evidence that takes the prison environment into account is ‘irrelevant’ and inadmissible in capital cases,” Morva’s petition argued, pointing out that this makes the state an “outlier.” Not only is it common sense to consider the conditions of confinement in predicting future dangerousness, the Supreme Court itself has ruled that defendants have a right to present such evidence. But in February, the justices declined to hear the case.
The systemic barriers to relief in Virginia have been compounded by Morva’s mistrust of his attorneys, which has made it extremely difficult to represent him. In the years Morva has remained untreated on death row, his lawyers have gotten “wrapped up into his persecutory delusions,” Davison says. He is convinced they deliberately botched his appeals as part of a bigger conspiracy against him, including his own family and friends. His response to the affidavits collected by Davison to support his state habeas petition years ago was to file a pro se complaint with the U.S. District Court, accusing her and all who participated of “inflammatory and malicious defamation of character.” Over dozens of handwritten pages, he litigated major and minor claims included in the affidavits, dismissing the sources as ignorant, untrustworthy, or mentally ill themselves.
With his appeals exhausted and his execution looming, Morva has not accepted an attorney visit in two years. It has been even longer since he allowed his family to visit, Davison says. Among the few people who have heard from Morva relatively recently is MacBain, who received correspondence from him last fall. “Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from him in several months,” she said.
Morva has never talked to MacBain about his execution. It is not even clear how well he understands it. She wishes she could go back and change her testimony to the jury when she took the stand on his behalf. Over email, she wrote down what she might have said. “If you know William, if you knew the loving, kind, gentle, hand-holding, underdog-cheering, smiling, hugging person that is William Morva, you would know, without a doubt that he had descended into a complete delusional madness to do what he did that day,” she wrote.
She has also revisited old letters. She is struck by their detachment from reality. Yet there are also “these brief interludes where he asks a sweet, normal question about my life or interjects even a little joke” before retreating back into darkness. In one letter, from 2012, Morva urges her to read “Spartacus,” by Howard Fast, about the slave revolt in ancient Rome. He predicts that society’s desensitization to violence will lead to gladiator competitions more popular than the NFL. He promises to tell her the real reasons he was put in jail, which he has shared with no one except his lawyers. “It’s an unpleasant story but you need to know it.”
In a more recent letter, his handwriting has deteriorated. He describes his fear over an array of physical symptoms — congestion, a rapid heartbeat. His illness “will move in waves,” Morva writes. “I’ll get more sick and then a little better and then a little more sick and then a little better and so on and so forth until finally I will get sick but not be able to recover.” He asks MacBain to go to the media, to pressure the prison doctor to treat him.
“I have learned so much about the nature of people,” he writes. “I know so much about good and evil, compassion and brutality, peace and combat. I’ll share what I’ve learned with you very soon.”