Fighting for life (without parole): Death penalty abolitionists see change on the horizon

Rachel Sutphin was only 9 years old when her father, Montgomery County Corporal Eric Sutphin, was murdered. But she’s become a strong advocate against the death penalty in Virginia.
PC: VADP Rachel Sutphin was only 9 years old when her father, Montgomery County Corporal Eric Sutphin, was murdered. But she’s become a strong advocate against the death penalty in Virginia. PC: VADP

In August 2006, 24-year-old William Charles Morva made national headlines when he sent the Montgomery County Police on a manhunt unlike any the town of Blacksburg had seen before.

While awaiting trial for an attempted armed robbery, Morva was taken to Montgomery Regional Hospital for minor injuries. After using the bathroom, he knocked out the deputy escorting him with a metal toilet paper dispenser, stole his gun, and fatally shot unarmed security guard Derrick McFarland before escaping the building. 

As police searched the Blacksburg area for Morva, a disheveled man wearing only a blanket and boxers was spotted on the Huckleberry Trail near the Virginia Tech campus. Montgomery County Sheriff’s Corporal Eric Sutphin went to check out the trail and encountered Morva, who fatally shot him.

After a 37-hour manhunt, Morva was finally captured on the trail, and was charged with two counts of capital murder. In March 2008, he was sentenced to death.

On July 6, 2017, Morva was executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center, becoming the 113th person executed in Virginia since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Virginia plays a unique role in the history of the death penalty—it’s believed the first execution in America occurred in Jamestown in 1608. Since then, over 1,300 people have been executed here, more than any other state.

But times might be changing. Last January, the Virginia State Senate passed a bill banning the death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness, a bill that could have made a difference in Morva’s case. It was not until after Morva was sentenced to death that a psychiatrist diagnosed him with delusional disorder, which made him falsely believe, among other things, that a former presidential administration conspired with police to imprison him, and that he was going to die in jail if he didn’t escape. According to family and friends, Morva’s mental health had been in a downward spiral since his father died from cancer in April 2004, leading him to drop out of high school, live in the woods, and, ultimately, engage in criminal behavior.

After Morva’s appeals were denied on the state and federal level, many individuals and agencies, including the United Nations and Sutphin’s daughter, Rachel, petitioned then-governor Terry McAuliffe to change Morva’s sentence to life in prison due to his severe mental illness. But McAuliffe declined to grant Morva clemency.

A year and a half after Morva’s death, the bill banning the death penalty for the severely mentally ill passed in the state Senate with bipartisan support, 23-17. Although the House version died in committee, the Senate bill was a major victory for advocates—the first time either chamber of the General Assembly had ever voted to limit the death penalty. 

On January 30, a similar bill was reintroduced in the Virginia Senate and approved by an overwhelming margin (32-7). And with bipartisan patrons Delegate Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) and Delegate Jay Leftwich (R-Chesapeake), the House version may have a better chance of passing the Courts of Justice Committee this time.

But groups like Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty don’t want the momentum to stop there. In November, 13 family members of murder victims—in alliance with VADP—sent a letter to the General Assembly asking lawmakers to join the 21 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have outlawed capital punishment. This session, a bill to abolish the death penalty entirely was introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly, although it did not make it out of committee (the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to delay consideration of the bill until next year, while the House did not schedule hearings). 

If Virginia abolished the death penalty, it would be one of the first Southern states to do so, and could lead the rest of the region to do the same—and bring about other crucial criminal justice reforms, advocates say.

Governor Ralph Northam has voiced his personal opposition to capital punishment, and a spokeswoman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that “if the General Assembly passed legislation to replace the death penalty with life without parole, the governor would absolutely sign it.”

Could Virginia get rid of the death penalty for good?

A decades-long mission

Back in 1989, a Virginia Commonwealth University survey found that, while a majority of Virginians supported the death penalty, support decreased when given the alternative of life in prison with no possibility of parole, along with restitution to victims’ families.

The results spurred a group of 13 people, adamantly opposed to the death penalty, to form an advocacy group, Virginians Against State Killing, in the hope of swaying public opinion. In 1994, they changed their name to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. 

Since then, VADP has held numerous protests against the death penalty across the commonwealth, aiming to bring as much attention as possible to the many problems within the system. It has also sponsored educational programs, held vigils for those who’ve been executed, and lobbied the General Assembly—not just to reform the state’s death penalty laws, but to abolish it all together.

Though VADP has had limited influence for much of its history, it has gained more traction in the past decade, garnering greater public support and assistance from legislators, and helping to prevent the expansion of Virginia’s capital murder statute.

Today, the group has grown to 2,872 members, who have a range of political affiliations. Conservative membership has increased since Michael Stone, a 25-year veteran of the Catholic diocese of Richmond, became executive director in 2015.

“One of the key things that I’ve been focused on in my five years with [VADP] is diversifying the organization politically,” he says. “When I came on board, the membership was overwhelmingly moderate [and] liberal Democrats. Because of my long history with the Catholic diocese, I have really strong relationships, not only with the Catholic leadership in the state, but with a lot of evangelical and interfaith leaders…as well as conservatives and Republicans.”

“If we’re going to win abolition in Virginia, it really needs to not be a partisan issue,” he says.

Michael Stone worked for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond for 25 years, and became VADP’s executive director in 2015. PC: VADP

At the diocese, Stone often worked with Bishop Walter Sullivan, who championed criminal justice reform. One day in 1984, Sullivan encouraged Stone to attend a vigil being held outside of Virginia State Penitentiary, where a man was to be executed. After much thought, Stone decided to go.

“The penitentiary was on this busy, divided four-lane north-south road. And on the side where the prison was, there were about 40 of us lined up in a silent vigil holding candles,” Stone says. “On the other side… was a group of over a hundred drunken revelers who were celebrating the execution of the man. They were holding up signs with racist messages and chanting racist things, because the man being executed that night was an African American gentleman.”

“It was just a very ugly scene. It struck me in that moment that there had to be something profoundly wrong with the death penalty, if that is what it could do to us as a society,” he says. “I came away strongly convinced that we had to end the death penalty.”

Like previous directors, Stone was VADP’s sole paid employee. But in 2017, after much fundraising, the group was able to hire Dale Brumfield as its field director, who has led scores of public education programs and “single-handedly increased VADP membership by at least 500…across the political spectrum,” says Stone. 

Others, like former VADP board president and capital defense attorney Matthew Engle, work directly in the courtroom. In 2015, Engle opened a private practice in Charlottesville with his partner, Bernadette Donovan. The pair represent capital murder defendants (and other serious felony cases) at the trial level across the commonwealth, and have helped reverse multiple death sentences.

Engle’s fight against the death penalty began many years earlier, while he was an undergraduate at Cleveland State University, where he worked at a residential treatment unit that helped former inmates reintegrate into society. He saw first-hand how ex-offenders could be rehabilitated and learned that “people who have been convicted of crimes, even very serious violent crimes, are often not that different than the rest of us,” he says.

“[That] really got me thinking about the death penalty and realizing that a lot of the people I was getting to know and really enjoyed working with, but for a few lucky breaks, could have been sentenced to death,” Engle says. “It made me really feel it was not something I could support.”

After graduating from Washington & Lee School of Law in 2001, Engle went on to work for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center in Charlottesville and for the Capital Defender Office of Northern Virginia, providing representation to those facing the death penalty. In 2010, he became legal director of the UVA law school’s Innocence Project, both teaching at UVA and representing many wrongfully convicted inmates.

Charlottesville capital defense attorney and VADP member Matthew Engle has helped reverse multiple death penalty sentences in Virginia. PC: Donovan & Engle

In addition to the several organizations, like Engle’s, that have been advocating against the death penalty in Virginia for years, VADP is joined in its fight by the ACLU of Virginia. Since the national ACLU became active in Virginia in the 1960s, its Virginia affiliate has voiced its opposition to the death penalty through public education, litigation, and advocacy.

It has challenged (unsuccessfully) Virginia’s policy of keeping all death row inmates in solitary confinement, and fought to reverse the death sentence of William Morva.

“That is a person who undoubtedly in my mind was put to death suffering from very severe mental illness,” says Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the ACLU of Virginia. “It makes me tremendously sad, personally, to think about a person who was strapped down to a table and had poison injected into his veins, and no idea what was happening to him or why.”

Victims’ voices

Those in favor of the death penalty often say they want justice for the families of murder victims. And some victims’ families do push for capital punishment. Unlike her granddaughter, Eric Sutphin’s mother, Jeaneen Sutphin, wanted Morva to be executed, though she felt empathy for his family.

“I have no hatred for this creature who shot him execution-style,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch about Morva, shortly before his execution date. “I just want justice for my son.”

But not all families of murder victims feel that the penalty brings them justice.

In 2001, Lucy and Terry Smith were brutally tortured and murdered in their home in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, by their 17-year-old adopted son, Michael Bourgeois, and his 19-year-old friend, Landon May. 

Linell Patterson, Terry’s daughter (and Lucy’s stepdaughter), was only 19 at the time. She had just moved to Virginia to attend Eastern Mennonite University when the murders occurred.

Her parents’ deaths rocked Patterson, and her then-21-year-old sister Megan Smith, to their core. Patterson felt both “clashes of anger” and “deepest sadness,” she says, and that no one could understand what they were going through.

Bourgeois pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole (later changed to 80-years-to-life due to changes in juvenile sentencing laws). However, because May did not plead guilty to all of his charges, he was put on trial by jury, which Patterson and her family attended.

“[When] we had a meeting with the prosecuting attorney [Craig Stedman], he sat us down and told us what to expect. It was very clear he knew what he was doing. He was very confident [and] calming,” she says. “He felt like he was our person.”

“But then he asked us how we felt about the death penalty, [and] my sister and I [said] we don’t want to be a part of that,” she says. “His tone changed very, very quickly…and he made it absolutely clear that regardless of how we felt, he was going to pursue the death penalty…Our opinions didn’t actually matter.”

Throughout May’s trial, Patterson says, Stedman continuously talked about how he was seeking justice for the Smith’s family, and it felt to her like he was lying and using them. She felt even more adamantly opposed to the penalty after meeting May’s family, who were just as devastated, connecting with them through their shared grief.

“I just will not forgot that noise that came out of that line of women when it was announced that Landon was to have the death penalty,” Patterson says. “I had also made that noise. I had also cried in that same way.”

On the evenings of executions, VADP holds vigils for the victims and the condemned throughout the state. PC: VADP

After May’s trial (and through the years of legal appeals that come with a death penalty conviction), Patterson experienced a whole range of emotions, and felt that she had nowhere to put them. She began reaching out to and meeting with other family members of murder victims, who she found to be “incredibly nurturing.”

“They were living very similar experiences, but also they were much further along in their process and had a sense of healing that was inspiring. I was able to visually see what it looked like to have this kind of trauma occur, and then continue to live a life that is based on joy, and calmness, and social justice,” Patterson says. “That’s something that I wanted.”

She also began researching the numerous injustices within the death penalty system, leading her to connect with anti-death penalty groups—including VADP, where she later served on the board.

Since then, Patterson has shared her story with a host of schools, legislators, and organizations, and written many op-eds against the death penalty. She’s also gotten married, and moved to Harrisonburg. Her work as a nurse practitioner keeps her quite busy, but she still makes time to be involved with VADP.

Though her advocacy against the death penalty has brought her healing, May’s impending execution—in the name of justice for her and her family—still haunts Patterson to this day. It won’t bring her parents back or bring them justice, she says, only “making a whole other family grieve in the same way.”

“I understand when people want the death penalty. It’s not that I haven’t struggled with those feelings,” she says. “But all that means is that some people want it, and some people don’t. You have to strip that away and explore the actual system, and then you find out that the system stinks. It’s not functional, and it makes a ton of mistakes.”

Like Patterson, Rachel Sutphin, who was 9 when Morva gunned down her father, has continued to advocate against the death penalty. Now a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, she has signed a joint letter with a dozen other surviving family members of murder victims asking the new General Assembly to end the death penalty. 

“Instead of supporting my family and me when we needed it the most, the Commonwealth devoted its resources to the trial and appeals that lasted more than 10 years. Year after year, I was retraumatized by the uncertainty and was repeatedly forced to relive the worst day of my life,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “Morva’s execution brought no solace to me, but it strengthened my resolve that the death penalty needs to be abolished…to value and protect human life.”

VADP has held many protests against the death penalty across the state, bringing attention to the injustices that plague the system. PC: VADP

Public opinion shifts

For the first time since the Gallup poll began asking Americans for their stance on the death penalty, in 1985, a majority of Americans today are opposed to it—when life without parole is also on the table.

In 2019, 60 percent of Americans surveyed, across a wide range of demographics and party lines, chose life without possibility of parole as “the better penalty for murder” over the death penalty. Thirty-six percent opted for capital punishment.

That’s a big shift even since the last Gallup poll, in 2014, when 50 percent of Americans said the death penalty was the better penalty for murder, and 45 percent favored life in prison.

While some states, like Wisconsin and Minnesota, abolished the death penalty many decades ago, this change in public opinion can be reflected in other states’ more recent actions. Washington and New Hampshire abolished the death penalty in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Also in 2019, California governor Gavin Newsom ordered a moratorium on executions in the state, which currently has 737 inmates on death row, for as long as he is governor. (The death penalty can only be abolished by California voters, a move they narrowly rejected in 2016.)

And in Virginia, no juries have handed down the death penalty in more than eight years.

Stone attributes this overall decline in public support and use of capital punishment to the rise in awareness of its numerous issues, especially “when the system gets it wrong.”

Since 1973, 167 death-row inmates, 87 of them black, have been exonerated of all charges. According to a 2014 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 in every 25 people sentenced to death is innocent—an error rate of 4.1 percent.

As the Death Penalty Information Center notes, it’s impossible to know how many of the 1,513 people executed in the United Sates since 1976 (when the death penalty was reinstated) were innocent. However, it lists over a dozen executed inmates who were possibly innocent, as well as several who were pardoned after their executions. 

People have also become more aware that “people of color are more likely to be given the death sentence than white people,” Carissa Phillips, VADP’s secretary, says, pointing to recent television shows and movies like Just Mercy that expose the racism within the death penalty system.

Charlottesville resident Carissa Phillips describes herself as “consistently pro-life,” and has been involved with VADP since 2017. PC: VADP

According to The Intercept, from 2009 to 2018, 60 percent of defendants given the death penalty were people of color. And today, while black people make up only 13.4 percent of the total population, they make up roughly 41 percent of those on death row, per the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s 2019 report

A person is also much more likely to receive the death penalty if the murder victim is white. Ever since executions have been carried out exclusively for murder, 75 percent of death penalty convictions have involved the murder of white victims—even though black and white people are equally as likely to be victims of murder.

And, as Engle notes, the death penalty disproportionately affects the poor.

“What I have learned from the cases that I’ve worked on, the single biggest factor that determines whether or not somebody gets sentenced to death isn’t how bad they are [or] how heinous or awful the crime is…[but] how effective the defense lawyers are,” he says, putting those—especially black people—who cannot afford to hire a good lawyer at a grave disadvantage.

Largely because of the lengthy legal process involved, the death penalty is also far more expensive than life without parole. Like many other advocates, Stone believes the millions of dollars going towards death penalty cases should instead go towards services for victims’ families, from funeral costs to counseling, and programs that effectively prevent acts of violence.

“There really is no evidence that the death penalty prevents violent crime in any way,” he says. “In fact, the murder rates in abolition states tend to be significantly lower than the murder rates in death penalty states.” 

In addition, the years of mandatory appeals and uncertainty “continue to traumatize murder victims’ family members,” as well as the other people involved in the criminal justice system, Stone says.

Stone points, in particular, to the executioner, who has to administer the lethal injection and “actually end the life of someone who is helpless, strapped to a gurney.” He says that performing executions can traumatize them over time. Former VADP board member Jerry Givens was an executioner in Virginia for 17 years, and still wonders if he ever killed an innocent person.

“People don’t realize that [for] the people that have to carry these things out, that’s a burden on them,” Givens says. “It’s no machine; it’s a human being that has to take another human being’s life.”

Jerry Givens worked as an executioner in Virginia for 17 years. PC: Subject

Before working in the system, Givens used to think that “people that take other people’s lives deserve to have their life taken as well.” However, he realized that the death penalty was not right after seeing that innocent people were being sentenced to death—like Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man who was wrongly convicted of murder and held on Alabama’s death row for 28 years.

“Think about the people that’s incarcerated now. Were they given a fair trial? Is there such a thing as a fair trial in the American criminal justice system?” he says. “The system is broken.”

To Givens, the death penalty only shows the world that “killing is okay,” and it must be ended.

Change on the horizon?

As much as public opinion has shifted, there are still significant numbers of prosecutors and politicians, as well as average Americans, who believe those convicted of capital offenses deserve to die, and that their deaths bring true justice to victims and their families. 

Republican Delegate Matt Fariss, who represents the 59th District (including parts of Albemarle), says he wishes we didn’t need the death penalty, but supports it in “some egregious cases,” such as “violent gang and drug related [cases] and sexual abuse cases that end in murder.”

“There just needs to be stiff enough penalties that people realize when they’re heading down these paths, that they’re heading down the wrong path,” he says.

Fariss also believes not having the death penalty for “egregious cases” does an injustice to victims’ families.

“There needs to be some accountability and responsibility to the victims,” he says. “I just don’t know how I could ever look a victim’s family in the eye and tell them that their loved one’s life was less important than the person who took it.”

But with the Democratic takeover of Virginia’s legislature, in addition to growing bipartisan support, advocates see reform as only a matter of time. 

“The death penalty is in its last days here in Virginia,” says Stone. “We are cautiously optimistic that there will be a serious floor debate on death penalty abolition in at least one chamber of the General Assembly” in the next session.

If an abolition bill is not passed this legislative session, Phillips believes it could happen within the next year or two, while Engle sees it happening most likely within the next decade.

Others like Farrar say that it’s difficult to determine the political will to abolish the death penalty in Richmond, on the part of both Democrats and Republicans. And, as shown by other states, it can take years of political battles to get abolition passed.

“For some, there’s a real urgency to make real changes as quickly as we can, and for some, there’s a desire to do that in a more incremental way,” says Farrar. “There is momentum on a national level away from the death penalty but, historically Virginia, especially in its criminal justice system, hasn’t really looked to other states as something to follow.”

In the meantime, advocates like Patterson are committed to keeping up the fight. 

The movement has given her “a sense of purpose when there has been very little purpose,” she says. To succeed in abolishing the death penalty “would feel a sense of accomplishment in that I have been a part of something that matters…It would feel like we are stepping towards social justice.”

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The Fitz
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The Fitz

Speaking as a forensic psychologist with nearly 50 years experience with the most violent offenders from early adolescence on up, attorney Engle’s assertion that those convicted of “even the most serious violent crimes” are “often not that different than the rest of us” is perhaps the most intuitively, commonsensically, experientially absurd remark I’ve ever heard, no less being entirely incorrect per decades of voluminous research. Indeed, if (in the U.S., a very violent nation) there is approximately 1 murder per 25,000 people, fair to conclude that the math indicates little common ground between murderers and John / Jane Doe. And… Read more »

Alfonso
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Alfonso

It’s not really about the death penalty. Once that is abolished, not a single activist will go home. What do you think they’re going to do: announce that America is now a fair place and quit their jobs? No, they’ll continue to bleed our justice system dry until they overturn life-without-parole, and then move on every other sentencing rule that keeps killers and rapists off the streets. We’re in an arms race, and the anti-incarceration activists are winning, not least because we have to subsidize their activism in addition to defending against it.