RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday commuted the death sentence of an inmate convicted of raping and murdering his mother-in-law in Shenandoah County in 1998.
McAuliffe said he commuted William Burns’ death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole since Burns has been declared incompetent to stand trial.
Accordingly, the commutation will end the court proceedings about this case while “ensuring Burns remains confined as a result of the horrendous crimes he committed,” officials with the governor’s office said.
Officials said the case has been in a “procedural holding pattern” after Burns’ conviction in 2000 because of his claims that he cannot be executed due to mental illness and intellectual disability.
Officials said Burns raped and murdered his 73-year-old mother-in-law Tersey Elizabeth Cooley on Sept. 21, 1998. According to the Northern Virginia Daily, the victim’s suffered 24 fractured ribs and her heart burst during the brutal attack.
He was convicted of capital murder in the commission of rape and/or forcible sodomy, statutory burglary, rape, and forcible sodomy. For his capital offense, the jury imposed the death sentence on Mr. Burns. That judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Virginia in March of 2001.
Since that time, Burns was found incompetent and sent for additional treatment to determine whether he is mentally disabled, according to the Northern Virginia Daily.
Officials with the governor’s office said Burns suffers from severe mental illness and that six forensic psychologists or psychiatrists since 1999 have found him not competent to stand trial.
“Treating and consulting experts have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence,” officials said in a news release. “To date, over $350,000 has been spent treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed.”
In addition, a psychiatric expert said there was little evidence Burns was faking his impairments.
McAuliffe said that despite the objections of the victim’s family and the commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted the case, continuing with the execution of Mr. Burns is not in the state’s best interest.
“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,” McAuliffe said. “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. This process will be time-consuming, will tax the resources of the Commonwealth, poses greater risk to public safety through the need to transfer Mr. Burns to less secure facilities for treatment, and, in the end, shows little promise of ever resulting in his execution.”
Burns is incarcerated at Sussex State Prison, according to online prison records.