When Virginia carries out its next execution, more of the process will be shrouded in secrecy.
Virginia is scheduled to give a lethal injection to 35-year-old William Morva on Thursday for the 2006 killings of a hospital security guard and a sheriff’s deputy, unless the governor intervenes.
Morva’s attorneys have urged Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to commute the sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole, saying the man’s crimes were the result of a severe mental illness that makes it impossible for him to distinguish between delusion and reality.
Recent changes to the state’s protocol mean that if Morva is executed, he would remain shielded from the view of his attorney and media witnesses until after he has been restrained and IV lines that carry the lethal drugs have been inserted in his veins.
The new policy has drawn fire from defense attorneys and transparency advocates. They say the public should get to see as much of the procedure as possible to ensure inmates aren’t subject to unnecessary pain.
“This is being done in the public’s name and they have a right to know if the execution is proceeding in a way that violates the constitution,” said Dawn Davison, an attorney for Morva.
Execution witnesses used to watch inmates walk into the chamber and be strapped down. A curtain would then be closed so the public couldn’t see the placement of the IV and heart monitors. After the curtain was reopened, inmates would be asked whether they had any final words before chemicals begin flowing.
Now, the curtain will be closed when the witnesses enter the chamber and won’t be opened until the inmate’s IV lines are placed.
Morva is scheduled to receive an injection of the sedative midazolam, followed by rocuronium bromide to halt breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Morva was awaiting trial on attempted robbery charges in 2005 when he was taken to a hospital to treat an injury. There, he attacked a sheriff’s deputy with a metal toilet paper holder, stole the deputy’s gun and shot security guard Derrick McFarland before fleeing. A day later, Morva fatally shot Eric Sutphin, a sheriff’s deputy searching for Morva near Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Morva was later found in a ditch with the deputy’s gun nearby.
Morva’s attorneys and others have urged McAuliffe to halt the execution, saying the inmate escaped and killed because he feared for his life while behind bars. The governor’s office has said Morva’s clemency petition is under review.
Changes to the execution protocol were made after attorneys raised questions in January about why it took so long to place the IV in the execution of killer Ricky Gray. Before Gray’s execution, the curtain remained closed for more than 30 minutes — about twice as long as usual.
Prison officials attributed the delay to difficulty finding a vein for the IV, but Gray’s attorneys said that wasn’t a “plausible explanation.”
Now, witnesses won’t know how long it takes to place the IV lines.
Spokeswoman Lisa Kinney, with the Virginia Department of Corrections, said in April that the changes were made to bring Virginia’s practice in line with other states.
“Waiting to open the curtain until after IV line placement reduces stress on the staff placing the lines, which in turn makes the process likely to go more quickly for the offender,” Kinney said. The new protocol took effect in February and officials couldn’t immediately say Wednesday whether any other changes have been made since.
How much of the execution process witnesses watch varies widely, depending on the state.
In several states — such as Texas and Missouri — the IVs are already inserted when witnesses first see the inmates. In Ohio, witnesses watch the insertion of the IV lines via closed circuit TV.
In 2012, The Associated Press and other news organizations successfully sued Idaho to force the state to let witnesses watch the insertion of the IV lines.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the news groups, noting it had ruled a decade earlier that witnesses should be allowed to view executions from the moment the condemned enters the death chamber until their final heartbeat.
The decision prompted some other states under the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction to change their policies to let witnesses view more of the execution procedure.
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Alanna Durkin Richer