Death row inmate ordered transferred amid security worries
WOODSTOCK – Death row inmate William Joseph Burns is returning to Marion Correctional Treatment Center from Central State Hospital as a result of worries by Department of Corrections officials that he might try to escape.
Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp ordered the transfer after granting a prosecution motion that described corrections officials’ suspicions that Burns has been faking chest pains that led on one occasion to a transfer to a hospital.
Burns, 49, has been on death row since his conviction in September 1998 on charges of rape, murder, forcible sodomy and burglary. The victim, Burns’ 73-year-old mother-in-law Tersey Cooley, suffered 24 broken ribs and a ruptured heart as a result of a beating from the defendant.
Burns’ death sentence has been thrown into doubt since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that inmates determined to be intellectually disabled cannot be executed. Burns’ attorneys have been arguing that their client is intellectually disabled and, as long as he remains so, cannot be put to death. Hupp found Burns mentally incompetent in a ruling in January 2011 that relied on a report from a psychologist who had examined Burns.
Burns was transferred from Marion to Central State in December after an order from Hupp that the defendant receive treatment at Central State to restore his mental competency, which would allow him to participate in a hearing to determine if he is intellectually disabled.
In July, Assistant Attorney General Richard Vorhis filed a motion asking the efforts to restore Burns’ competency be shifted back to Marion after Burns on two occasions complained of chest pains.
Vorhis said doctors could not confirm Burns’ symptoms either time, one of which involved a trip to a hospital emergency room where he was discharged the next day without treatment.
“Central State is not a facility that is designed to run as a secure prison environment,” Vorhis wrote. “Notwithstanding the department of corrections’ offer to provide security officers to Burns, Central State has refused such offers.
“While the department of corrections is mindful of the need to provide the best attempts to restore Burns to competency, the department is increasingly concerned about the security that Central State can provide while housing Burns.”
Vorhis added that the recent transport of Burns to the hospital emergency room “without the attendant security precautions that the department of corrections would typically furnish, demonstrates some of the dangers raised by the extended placement of death-sentenced offender outside secure department of corrections facilities.”
Special prosecutor Paul Ebert, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Prince William County, said in an interview Thursday that there is no guarantee that efforts to restore Burns’ mental competency will succeed.
Ebert was appointed special prosecutor in the Burns case in 1998 after the Shenandoah County prosecutor said he had a conflict of interest.
A doctor must determine Burns’ competence and then contact a judge who would make a final decision on whether to conduct a hearing before a jury that would determine whether Burns is intellectually disabled.
“The jury has ruled he ought to be executed,” Ebert said, referring to the outcome of the trial 16 years ago. “I think he should be executed but he’s got to be found competent for that to happen.”
Defense attorney Jonathan Sheldon, who represented Burns at the most recent hearing in Shenandoah County, did not return a telephone message asking him to comment.