Should there be a Death Penalty for the Mentally Ill?

Gavel - Death Penalty and the Mentally Ill

For William Morva, 35, on July 6th, 2017, the law had the final word.

It didn’t care that Morva had thought his life was in danger in 2006. Or that he’d been allegedly held and tortured for weeks when he killed a security guard and police deputy in an attempt to escape.

It didn’t matter to the law that his mental illness made him believe his delusions.

The only thing that mattered to the law was that Morva understood the difference between right and wrong when he killed those men. For a strict interpretation of that, we can’t argue with the law. That is what kept numerous judges from lifting the death penalty.

Morva was put to death by the State of Virginia via lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia.

The Death Penalty and the Mentally Ill

Morva isn’t the first mentally ill person to be sentenced to death because of crimes committed under the influence of mental illness. The advocacy group Mental Health America estimates that 5-10% of America’s 2,900 death row inmates are sufferers of various kinds of mental illness.

Morva’s defense team attempted to prove that Morva committed the murders in an attempt to save his life. After his trial, he was diagnosed with a schizoid personality disorder that resulted in his odd beliefs.

Advocates for a change in the law don’t want to someone like William Morva to walk free. They are seeking an exemption from the death penalty for those suffering from a mental illness like Morva.

The insanity defense, as is more well-known, is rarely allowed in court. Most states have a very narrow definition of what constitutes insanity. In addition, most people charged with a murder don’t fall into that narrow definition.

Advocates for Exemption

Advocates like Mental Health America want to add the mentally ill to the exemption already in place for other groups.

For instance, the courts have excluded certain groups from the death penalty. These include those who have cognitive disabilities and those under the age of 18. Make no mistake. These are people who did commit murders and who understood the difference between right and wrong.

However, the courts have recognized in each instance that the impairments suffered by the killers affected their judgment and sense of responsibility.

Advocates for stopping the death penalty for the mentally ill argue that mental illness can also, and often does, impose just as much impairment. The argument is that those suffering from mental illness should simply be exempt from the death penalty.

William Morva’s judge, who doesn’t agree with the death penalty, had to uphold how the law is currently written.

One of the problems with changing the law for mental illness is that there are so many diagnosed mental illnesses. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other illnesses can affect a person’s mood and reasoning abilities.

Where can the law draw a line, other than whether a person knows what he or she is doing is wrong?

The closest thing to this exemption the Supreme Court has ruled was in 2007. ”[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.”


In conclusion, in the case of severe mental illness, how should the law regard those who commit serious crimes? How should it regard cases like the murders for which William Morva was responsible? Should the mentally ill, like those with mental handicaps and children under 18, be exempt from the death penalty?