Governor McAuliffe commutes death sentence in 1998 slaying

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Friday commuted the death sentence of a man convicted of raping and killing his 73-year-old mother-in-law.

The decision means William Joseph Burns will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

McAuliffe said he based his decision on Burns' mental illness and potential intellectual disability.

Burns, now 51, was sentenced to death for the 1998 rape, forcible sodomy and fatal beating of his wife's mother, Tersey Elizabeth Cooley, in Shenandoah County.

McAuliffe said the victim's family and the prosecutor in the case opposed clemency. But he said that because Burns has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial on his claim that he cannot be executed due to intellectual disability, there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence. 

"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," McAuliffe said in his written commutation order.

"Commuting Mr. Burns's sentence to life without possibility of parole brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim's family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course."