On July 6, 2017, William Morva was killed by lethal injection in a Virginia prison. He had been convicted of killing Derrick McFarland, a hospital security guard, and a sheriff’s deputy, Eric Sutphin. No one in Virginia has been executed since.
State legislators, the U.N. special rapporteur for arbitrary executions, the European Union, the U.N. special rapporteur for mental health, and one of Sutphin’s daughters asked then-governor Terry McAuliffe to stop the execution.
Morva, who was severely mentally ill, was suffering from delusions at the time of the murder, according to his attorneys. When he was not incarcerated, he ate raw meat and pine cones, believing he suffered from an intestinal disorder.
But McAuliffe refused to intervene. “I personally oppose the death penalty,” he said in a statement, announcing his decision to decline Morva’s clemency petition. “However, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views.”
After Morva’s execution, Sutphin’s daughter, Rachel, told local news outlet WTOP News, “A lot of people, they want families to have this moment that heals them or makes things completed. And for me, it did not.”
“It was instead, more hurt,” she said. “I felt, well, now there are two people dead.”
On Wednesday, McAuliffe announced he’ll be running for governor for a second time. During his first term, from 2014 to 2018, he oversaw three executions, including Morva’s, putting him out of step both with his democratic gubernatorial colleagues and growing opposition to the death penalty.
“In my personal opinion I think he was the worst governor we had on the death penalty since George Allen,” said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Allen, a Republican, was governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998. Twenty-four people were executed during his term, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
Between 2014 and 2020, 160 executions were carried out by state governments, according to DPIC. Of those, only two Democratic governors oversaw any executions—the other was former Missouri governor Jay Nixon, who oversaw 17 of them. Republican administrations carried out the remaining 140.
McAuliffe’s website does not state his current position on capital punishment, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment by publication. On Friday, gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy tweeted, “As a former public defender, I have seen the inequities in our criminal justice system firsthand. As Governor, I will repeal the death penalty in Virginia.”
In 2016, McAuliffe led efforts to keep secret the pharmacies that provide drugs used in lethal injections. “These manufacturers will not do business in Virginia if their identities are to be revealed,” McAuliffe said at the time, the Washington Post reported.
“He repeatedly tried to manipulate the legislature into passing execution drug secrecy despite significant opposition within his own party,” said Stone. “It was maddening for us in the organization for someone who said he was personally opposed to the death penalty. He was just as agressive in his public policy work on the death penalty as any pro-death penalty governor we’ve had.”
Executions are on the decline in Virginia overall, reflecting national trends. Since 1976, Virginia has executed 113 people, the second most in the nation, according to DPIC. But today, it’s on the precipice of abolition. Next year, the state legislature is expected to consider a bill to repeal the death penalty. A death sentence has not been handed down since 2011, and there are only two people on Virginia’s death row.
“We are very close to death penalty abolition in Virginia,” said Stone. “We think we’ll be significantly set back if Terry McAuliffe is the next governor of Virginia. We just don’t think he would support abolition based on our prior experience.”
Twenty years ago, only twelve states, plus the District of Columbia, had abolished capital punishment and one state had a governor-imposed moratorium, according to DPIC. As of today, 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned capital punishment, and in three states, governors have imposed a moratorium, which pauses executions during the governor’s term.
Even in the 28 states with a death penalty, few executions occur, according to DPIC. Between 2016 and 2019, 90 people were executed. Almost that many people were executed in 2000, when states put 85 people to death. Of those, 40 were executed in Texas under then-Governor George W. Bush.
“The death penalty has been fading at the state and local level for several years now,” said Brandon Garrett, author of the book, “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” “Death sentencing rose for a decade beginning in the 1970s and by the late 1990s all of a sudden death sentencing started to collapse.”
Up until July, the federal death penalty system reflected the punishment’s increasing unpopularity. Before this year, the last federal execution was carried out in 2003, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Between 1970 and 1999, no federal prisoners were executed.
But then on July 14, the federal government—under President Trump and Attorney General William Barr—executed Daniel Lewis Lee. Two days later, they executed Wesley Ira Purkey. On July 17, they executed Dustin Lee Honken. On Aug. 26, they executed Lezmond Charles Mitchell. On Aug. 28, they executed Keith Dwayne Nelson. On Sept. 22, they executed William Emmett Lecroy, Jr. On Sept. 24, they executed Christopher Andre Vialva.
“What we’re seeing from the Trump administration is a historical aberration,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of DPIC. “No president in the 20th or 21st century has ever carried out this many civilian federal executions in a single year.”
On Nov. 19—after President Trump’s defeat—the federal government executed Orlando Cordia Hall. President Grover Cleveland, in 1885, was the last president to oversee a federal execution during a presidential transition, according to DPIC. Several more executions are scheduled to occur before President-Elect Joe Biden, who opposes the death penalty, takes office: Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11, Lisa Montgomery on Jan. 12, Cory Johnson on Jan. 14, and Dustin Higgs on Jan. 15.
“That’s the case of a repudiated presidency trying to carry out executions before another president who disagrees with that policy takes office,” said Dunham. “These executions are an intent to kill, not an intent to carry out justice.”
Four years ago, advocates tried to stop this macabre scenario from playing out. They urged President Barack Obama to commute the sentences of all federal death row prisoners before President Trump, an ardent supporter of capital punishment, took office, according to Natasha Minsker, a member of District Attorney George Gascón’s transition team on the death penalty. “When President Obama left office many people were pleading with him to clear the federal death row,” she said. “People remained hopeful until the moment Trump was sworn in.”
But during his lame duck period, Obama only commuted the sentences of two people on death row.
“President Obama took no steps to forestall the kind of mass execution that we’re seeing now,” said Dunham. “The administration knew or could have known about the significant defect in the trials of all the people who are currently being executed or have been executed.”
Montgomery, who’s scheduled to be executed next month, has been diagnosed with severe mental illness. As a child she was sex trafficked and sexually and physically tortured.
Brandon Bernard, who was executed Thursday, was only 18 when his co-defendant shot the two victims. Several jurors in his case spoke out to oppose his execution. Campaigns to commute Montgomery and Bernard’s sentences have attracted thousands of supporters.
While it would take congressional action to repeal the federal death penalty, Biden can still commute the sentences of the remaining people on death row. Federal prosecutors can also choose not to seek the death penalty and Biden’s administration can choose not to seek execution dates, said Garrett. “Federal death sentencing and executions can come to a grinding halt,” he said.
This piece has been updated with additional quotes and context.