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Career Federal Prosecutor Gene Rossi Calls For Life Sentence, Not Death Penalty, in William Morva Case

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by Gene Rossi

As we approach another Fourth of July, we are again reminded of the grand principles on which our country was later founded under our constitution. We should all honor Independence Day. But on July 6, after the euphoria and festivities have clearly ended, I will not be celebrating. The Commonwealth of Virginia is set to execute a man whom I firmly believe did not receive the full benefit of a cherished constitutional principle: Due Process.

For close to thirty years–mostly in Virginia as an Assistant United States Attorney–I personally and aggressively tried a record number of cases (over 110) in federal courts for the U.S. Justice Department. I could be relentless when needed–one jury trial involved a drug trafficker who murdered close to forty victims. I also supervised and worked with attorneys who were assigned to that rare federal capital case. Thus, I am not unfamiliar with horrendous crimes and vulnerable victims.

What guided me in my many trials and work? “The United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts.” This quote is etched into the wall of the rotunda outside the office of the U.S. Attorney General. These beautiful words must apply equally to the Commonwealth. What do those words really mean? In each criminal case (large or small), a bedrock constitutional principle is that everyone is entitled to the full panoply of Due Process (fairness) in all judicial proceedings–most dramatically so when the ultimate punishment of death is imposed. I fondly taught this glorious principle to the 1,000 new prosecutors whom I taught and managed. A true fidelity to these words and principle was incredibly easy and professionally fulfilling.

However, my decision to ask Governor Terry McAuliffe to commute William Morva’s death sentence to life without parole is anything but easy. My heart just bleeds with compassion for those whose lives were taken. The two innocent victims in this state murder trial were proud members of law enforcement–a profession for which I shall always have the utmost respect and affection. I remain extremely close to hundreds of agents and officers from my three decades as a Justice Department prosecutor. My deepest of sympathies go out to the families of the victims in this case. I am absolutely heartbroken whenever a law enforcement official’s life is taken.

Yet the terribly flawed (if not embarrassing) process by which this defendant was sentenced in his trial–plus his continued status as someone who is utterly delusional because of a very serious mental illness–compels me to ignore my strong prosecutorial biases and instead err on the side of judicial compassion. When a jury deciding life or death fails to hear about the severely diminished mental capacity of a defendant, that failure is simply unjust. Three wrongs do not make it right. William Morva’s life should be spared. Due Process demands this.

Gene Rossi

(Former Democratic Candidate for Lieutenant Governor)

June 30, 2017