Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday commuted the death sentence of a killer who had been found mentally incompetent to be executed.
William Joseph Burns, who was convicted of raping and murdering his 73-year-old mother-in-law in Shenandoah County in September 1998, will now serve life without parole.
Virginia governors have granted clemency to death row inmates nine times since the death penalty was allowed to resume in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
On April 20, McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz to life in prison without the possibility of parole, saying the sentencing phase of Teleguz’s trial in the murder-for-hire case “was terribly flawed and unfair.”
McAuliffe said in a statement on the new commutation that Burns “has long suffered from severe mental illness,” that experts have confirmed that Burns “is not likely to be restored to competence,” and that he “has not showed signs of stabilizing” while in custody.
“There is no doubt that Mr. Burns committed an unimaginably heinous crime,” McAuliffe said.
“He will not evade punishment — he will be incarcerated for the remainder of his life. Commuting Mr. Burns’ sentence to life without possibility of parole brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course.”
In recent decades, Virginia governors granted clemency to two other mentally ill killers who were facing execution. In 1999, Gov. Jim Gilmore commuted the death sentence against Calvin Eugene Swann and, in 2008, Gov. Tim Kaine commuted Percy Levar Walton’s death sentence. Both were diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Burns was sentenced to death in Shenandoah County for the murder, rape and forcible sodomy of his wife’s mother, Tersey Elizabeth Cooley, fatally beaten at her home in Edinburg.
Burns was sentenced to death in 2000, and the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the sentence in March 2001.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in the case of Atkins v. Virginia that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court of Virginia subsequently held that “Mr. Burns’ claim of intellectual disability was not frivolous” and sent his case back to Shenandoah County Circuit Court, McAuliffe said.
During those proceedings “Mr. Burns again showed signs of severe mental illness,” the governor added.
The state Supreme Court ruled that Burns has a constitutional right to be competent for adjudication of his intellectual disability claims, McAuliffe said. It sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings, but ruled that it could not proceed to trial on the intellectual disability claim unless Burns was mentally competent.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, his party’s pick for majority leader if Republicans retain an edge in the House of Delegates, tweeted that “the malingering William Burns escapes justice” for his “horrific” crimes.
McAuliffe said he had considered the views of the commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted the case and the victim’s family — noting that they oppose clemency in Burns’ case.
“But I have determined that continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns is no longer in the best interests of the commonwealth.
“As of now, there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible. To do so would require returning Mr. Burns to competency (which experts believe unlikely to occur), defeating his claim of intellectual disability in a jury trial, exhausting appeals of that and other claims, setting an execution date, defeating subsequent litigation over his execution, and maintaining his mental competence for execution.”
McAuliffe added: “As governor, it is my responsibility to ensure that the commonwealth carries out the death penalty in accordance with the requirements of the Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment (here, potential execution of the intellectually disabled) and requires due process (here, the mental competence to participate in one’s defense).
“These are unyielding requirements, and I have concluded that continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.”