Arianna Zoghi: My eye-opening experience in capital defense

 I have been working at the Northern Virginia Capital Defender Office this summer. This is a trial-level office; however, death penalty work, by nature, is an all hands on deck effort, so when Virginia set an execution date for William Morva, my office helped the post-conviction office as much as we could. I wound up spending a lot of time this summer working on William Morva’s clemency campaign.

Mr. Morva was seriously mentally ill. He suffered from delusional disorder, a psychotic disorder similar to schizophrenia. He had committed his crimes as a direct result of this illness and yet, the illness had not been adequately presented to jurors during the trial. His illness was treatable, but the prison was refusing to treat him. We were petitioning the Governor to grant clemency and stop the execution.

Unfortunately, the Governor denied the petition for clemency and Mr. Morva was executed on July 6th. It was my first time experiencing the loss of a client and it was definitely really difficult. However, it also made me even more certain that I want to be involved in capital defense. It strengthened my belief that the death penalty is inhumane and that it targets the most vulnerable among us. It also was a painful reminder of what we are fighting against and why trial-level defense is so important. It made me want to work even harder for our clients at the Capital Defender Office so that they never have to be in that position.

My internship at the Capital Defender Office has been really interesting and I have learned a lot about the way that death penalty trials work. I have also gotten the opportunity to meet many wonderful people in the capital defense community including attorneys, mitigation specialists, and exonerees. I have learned so much from these people and am so grateful for this opportunity!

Yassamin Ansari