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MORVA v. ZOOK, NO. 15-1

Decided: May 5, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

In 2006, William Charles Morva was in jail in Virginia on several charges. He was in jail for a year before escaping prison and committing the crimes that are the subject of his habeas petition. Morva requested medical attention and was taken to a hospital. After a trip to the bathroom, Morva attacked the deputy that was escorting him and knocked him unconscious. Morva took the deputy’s firearm and proceeded to shoot a hospital security officer in the face before escaping the hospital. Another corporal followed Morva into the nearby woods but was shot in the head by Morva during the pursuit. Both the security officer and corporal died as a result of their injuries. Morva was found in the woods a day later with the deputy’s gun nearby and Morva’s DNA on the trigger. Morva was charged with capital murder and sentenced to death by a jury. After proceeding unsuccessfully through state court, Morva filed a federal habeas petition that was denied by the district court. This appeal followed.

Morva presents five claims for review in his petition. First, he contends that the Virginia circuit court’s denial of his motion to appoint a prison-risk-assessment expert violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Next, Morva raises three related ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims regarding counsel’s investigation into his childhood, family background, and mental-illness history; counsel’s presentation of mitigating evidence; and counsel’s assistance to the state-funded mental-health experts. Finally, Morva appeals the denial of relief regarding his counsel’s decision during the guilt phase of trial to stipulate to Morva’s status as a “prisoner in a state or local correctional facility,” who was “imprisoned, but not yet had gone to trial,” and who was “in lawful custody” at the time of the charged offenses. As to the first claim, the Court found that the Supreme Court of Virginia did not unreasonably reject Morva’s claim because his claim was improperly framed as an unconstitutional prohibition on his right to present mitigating evidence. The Court reviewed the related ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims together finding that the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision on deficient performance does not warrant federal habeas relief. The Court also affirmed the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision as to prejudice. The Supreme Court of Virginia found that “Morva has not demonstrated what impact, if any,” the new family-background evidence “had on his actions,” and concluded that the information “does not mitigate Morva’s actions.” The Court went further to say that the additional evidence would not have changed the minds of the mental health experts used in the case. Finally, the Court denied Morva’s final claim due to the Commonwealth’s ability to prove all of these allegations through evidence even if they were not stipulated.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Michael W. Rabb