The Virginia State Senate has approved a bill that, if enacted, would ban capital punishment for defendants suffering from severe mental illness. The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill by a vote of 23-17. The bill now moves on to the House of Delegates which is comprised of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats.
The bill defines “severe mental illness” as “active psychotic symptoms that substantially impair a person’s capacity to (i) appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct; (ii) exercise rational judgment in relation to the person’s conduct; or (iii) conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.” The bill specifically excludes disorders that manifest primarily in repeated criminal conduct or are "attributable to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or any drug." The "severe mental illness" determination would be made during the sentencing phase of a defendant's trial. The jury or the judge would be tasked with deciding, by a preponderance of the evidence, whether the defendant suffered from a severe mental illness at the time of the offense. If found to have a severe mental illness, a defendant would be sentenced to life in prison without parole in lieu of the death penalty. The bill would not prevent people with severe mental illness from being convicted of crimes.
Virginia’s History of Executions
Virginia does have a history of executing individuals who may have had a severe mental illness. In July of 2017, Virginia executed William Morva, a man with a delusional disorder. Morva had been sentenced to death in 2008 for the 2006 murder of a security guard during an escape from custody. He asked for a commutation of his sentence based on a psychiatrist’s finding that he suffered from a severe mental illness. Morva’s attorney argued that he believed he was acting in self-defense at the time of the murder. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe refused to commute the sentence.
Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions it has completed since 1976. There has, however, been a sharp decline in recent years. There are currently only two men on death row, and no defendant has been sentenced to death since 2011.
If you or a loved one has a mental disability and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.