Free man: Morris avoids 2nd murder trial
Throughout the trial of Alvin Lee "Butch" Morris for the murder 21 years ago of her brother, Dorothy McAllister sat calmly in Albemarle Circuit Court, hoping finally to see the man she believes killed Roger Lee Shifflett brought to justice. That trial ended with a hung jury.
She wasn't in court Thursday–- having been tipped off in advance–- to hear Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford ask the judge to nolle prosequi the murder and robbery charges against Morris.
"I can't bring myself," explained McAllister, "to sit there and watch."
Other kin felt the same. Although at least a dozen family members filled the courtroom for the seven-day trial in July, none were in court August 27 when Lunsford made the announcement.
In July, the court was packed with Morris supporters on one side, the Shifflett family on the other, as Morris was tried for the 1988 murder of Roger Shifflett, who was found shot five times at the Southwind Gas and Grocery on Route 20.
Even then, police and many Shifflett family members were convinced Morris was the killer. Adding to their outrage was that Morris, a regular at the Southwind, admitted to police his growing attachment to Shifflett's widow, Barbara, whom he married a year after the slaying.
On July 13, after 13 hours of deliberation, the 12-person jury informed the court they were hopelessly split, and Judge Cheryl Higgins declared a mistrial. A day earlier, the jury told Higgins they were evenly divided at 6-6.
"What it comes down to is reasonable doubt," says Lunsford, explaining that she spoke to jurors while weighing her decision.
"I have to be fair to the victim and fair to the family," says the prosecutor. "I have to bear in mind my responsibility to the defendant, and if I don't feel there's a reasonable chance of conviction, then I can't retry the case."
Although electing not to try the case again now, Lunsford says that if additional information arises, the charges can be brought again, but such information would have to be substantial to try a 21-year-old murder case.
"Even if we have additional information, witnesses may not be alive," she says. "I wish we could have gotten a verdict. I am frustrated with the fact that we don't have a sufficient set of circumstances that we can retry the case."
Lunsford lists the evidence she thought would convict Morris: a cigarette butt bearing his DNA found near the door of the allegedly well-swept store, his first wife's claim that Morris crawled back to bed the morning that Shifflett was killed, and Morris' relationship that made him the replacement husband to Barbara Shifflett Morris, now the secretary at Stone-Robinson Elementary.
A saddened McAllister says she has no doubt that Morris killed her brother.
"This trial is not over with completely," says McAllister. "Someday there will be a knock on Alvin Morris' door to let him know of his arrest and that the trial still continues. Morris is not a free man; a murderer never goes free."
Her brother, Earl Shifflett, adds the family thinks Lunsford did a good job in prosecuting the case, and they appreciate the Albemarle County police detectives who worked on the case–- and the six jurors "who knew all along Alvin Morris was guilty."
Butch Morris declined to comment after the judge accepted the nolle prosequi. According to his attorney, Dana Slater, the defendant was pleased.
"There must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Slater said in a prepared statement, "or the presumption of innocence prevails, and that is just what Mr. Morris is– innocent."
While Shifflett family members have said they believe Barbara Morris was somehow involved, she has declined all comment. And when the prosecutor was asked whether the school secretary will face a prosecution of her own, Lunsford replied, "I'm not commenting on that."
During the trial, Butch Morris, 68, won smiles in court from members of his church as well as the three of Shifflett's five sons that he raised. In recordings of his interviews with police, the recovering alcoholic Morris said his marriage to Barbara gave him a second chance, and that he quit drinking and smoking.
"I don't want him for what he is now; I want him for what he was in 1988," says bereaved brother Earl Shifflett, expressing anger that Morris' mother lived to attend her son's trial while his own family dealt with two deaths.
"Ms. Morris was there every day giving her son support," says Earl Shifflett. "My mother went to her grave mourning her son."