Death sentence commuted for man convicted of 1998 capital murder

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RICHMOND, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A man on death row will now spend the rest of his life in prison instead.

On Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of William Burns to live without the possibility of parole.

According to a release, Burns has been declared incompetent to stand trial on a pending claim that he cannot be executed due to intellectual disability.

Due to the mental illness and potential disability, the case has been awaiting action since the early 2000s.

The release says this commutation of sentence ends the court proceedings concerning the case and ensures Burns remains in prison as a result of the crimes for which he was convicted.

In the commutation order, the details of the case from 1998 are laid out.
It states Burns committed the "brutal rape and murder" of his mother-in-law, 73-year-old Tersey Elizabeth Cooley, in Shenandoah County.

As a result, he was convicted of capital murder in the commission or rape and/or forcible sodomy, statutory burglary, rape and forcible sodomy, and he was sentenced to death. That sentence was affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2001.

The intellectual disability issue had been raised and Burns' competency to stand trial was also raised and rejected during the proceedings.

Then in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in another Virginia case that is was a violation of the Eighth Amendment to execute the intellectually disabled, calling it cruel and unusual punishment.

Burns sought to establish his intellectual disability, which the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in 2005 was not a frivolous claim and the case was remanded for trial.

The commutation says Burns showed signs of severe mental illness during the remanded proceedings, and his attorneys moved to have him declared incompetent.

The trial court ruled competence was not required to proceed with the case, but that was appealed, and the Virginia Supreme Court determined Burns had a constitutional right to be competent for adjudication of the disability claim.

So in 2010, the trial court ruled it could not proceed on the disability claim unless Burns was mentally competent.

Since 1999, six forensic psychologists or psychiatrists have evaluated Burns, deeming him not competent to stand trial, leading to multiple delays in the case.

The commutation order says experts have since confirmed Burns is not likely to be restored to competence.

It adds that, to date, more than $350,000 has been spent treating, transferring, monitoring and litigating whether or not he has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether or not he has the intellectual capacity to be executed.

"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," wrote McAuliffe. "There is no doubt that Mr. Burns committed an unimaginably heinous crime. 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."

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