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Supreme Court rules on death penalty cases

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the death penalty today for William Charles Morva but set aside the death penalty of a man convicted of murder and rape in Fairfax County 20 years after the crimes.

The only real point of contention in the case of Morva was whether he should be allowed to present expert testimony on the issue of future dangerousness. The expert would have testified that he was unlikely to harm anyone because he would be strictly supervised in prison and would never be released.

The prosecution emphasized that Morva had killed a hospital security guard after overpowering a Montgomery County deputy sheriff at a hospital and taking his weapon. Morva was awaiting trial on burglary and attempted robbery charges at the time. He later used the weapon to kill another deputy during the manhunt for him.

Justices Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. and Barbara Milano Keenan said the emphasis by the prosecution on Morva’s escape and the commission of the crimes while he was a fugitive required the admission of the expert’s testimony. The exclusion of the testimony under those circumstances meant that the court had adopted a per se rule on such testimony when it had used a case-by-case analysis previously, Koontz wrote.

In the Fairfax case, Alfredo Prieto already was awaiting execution in California for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl there when a cold DNA hit implicated him in the December 1988 rape and murder of Rachael A. Faver and the murder of her boyfriend, Warren H. Fulton.

The court upheld the capital murder convictions but overruled the death sentence because the verdict forms did not make it clear that the jury could still impose a life sentence rather than the death penalty even if it found that the killings were vile and Prieto constituted a future danger. The forms also did not make it clear that the jury had to be unanimous on one of the aggravating factors.

Jury instructions that attempted to insure that the jury understood those points did not cure the defect in the forms, Justice LeRoy F. Millette Jr. wrote for the court. It sent the case back to Fairfax for a new sentencing trial.

By Alan Cooper

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