Morris trial: Jury split, reconvenes Tuesday

news-morris-slater-barbaraButch Morris, attorney Dana Slater and Barbara Morris arrive at court on the first day of his murder trial.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER

After almost 10 hours of deliberation, the jury weighing whether Alvin Lee "Butch" Morris is guilty of the murder of Roger Lee Shifflett 21 years ago told the judge they were split 6-6 in an early poll, and remained so this evening.

The jury began deliberations at 11am, and continued until the judge released them at 8:45pm with instructions to reconvene at 9:30am Tuesday, July 14.

Today was the birthday of Roger Shifflett, who was 38 years old when he was gunned down at the now-demolished Southwind Grocery on Route 20 in 1988.

Members of his family who've been at the six-day trial, which began July 6, expressed disappointment that the jury had not reached a verdict.

In closing arguments, Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford reiterated the evidence against Morris: A cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime with his DNA in a parking lot that Roger Shifflett was "very particular" about keeping clean, she said.

Although Morris was a regular at the Southwind, where he frequently purchased the Salem Lights he smoked at the time, Lunsford also noted that Morris had been with his first wife the day before. "He didn't go to the store that day," she said.

She also pointed to a motive: "Consider this," she told the jury. "Alvin Morris was in love with Barbara Shifflett." Morris married Shifflett's widow a year after the murder.

Morris' statements to police in 1988 and 2008, which were recorded and played to the jury, changed. "Consider the lies," instructed Lunsford. Initially he denied owning a .22 pistol, the weapon with which Shifflett was killed. Later, he said he had one but hadn't seen it, and then that he gave it to his father, now deceased.

"Not I used to own one," said Lunsford, "as thousands of people in Albemarle do. No. He said, 'I don't own one.'"

Morris also claimed that Southwind employee Steve Stover, who found Shifflett's body around 6am June 20, 1988, confessed to Morris that he'd killed Shifflett four or five times and came to Safeway, where Morris was employed, to tell him.

"Apparently [Stover] tracked Mr. Morris down to confess," said Lunsford incredulously. But in subsequent interviews, Morris called the alleged confessions "hearsay," and in 2008 he didn't remember them.

Lunsford cited a phone call taped May 19, 2008, between Butch and Barbara Morris when he was in jail, and noted their lack of shock at his arrest. Instead, said Lunsford, they reassured each other that the evidence was 20 years old.

Defense attorney Andre Hake showed a blank sheet of paper to the jury as her co-counsel, Dana Slater, had in her opening statement a week ago to demonstrate the prosecution's lack of evidence against the defendant.

Hakes listed reasons Southwind employee Stover could have been the killer: He was not searched, his car was not searched and he said he had a gun in his car. Stover denied owning a .22. "That was a lie," declared Hakes, who recalled a witness who'd seen Stover with a small revolver in the store before the murder.

Hakes also slammed police collection of evidence and the chain of custody over 21 years, accusing an officer of mislabeling and moving cigarette butts found at the scene.

She called Morris' first wife, Diane Houchens, "not a credible witness." Houchens testified she heard Morris get into bed around 6am that morning, but told police in 1988 that when she woke up, she thought he'd been to the bathroom.

In the police interview tapes, Morris repeatedly denied being the shooter. Detective Phil Giles told him in 2008 that one of the bullets found in Shifflett's body had DNA on it and took a DNA sample from Morris, "Butch is so relieved," said Hakes. "You'll get your results back and it's not me," she quoted him as saying.

In rebuttal, Lunsford took her own piece of blank paper, and wrote down some numbers, asking the jury, "How about this? One in 6.5 billion that the DNA belonged to someone else. How about this? Six o'clock, the time [Morris] was getting back to bed. How about June 11– the day he tells his wife he doesn't want to be married? Fifteen months later he's married [to Barbara]. How about a .22, the one Mr. Morris can't remember owning?"

She finished with a reminder of another jailhouse taped phone call between Butch and Barbara Morris, in which he said, "If I had to do it all again, it was well worth the 20 years."

Albemarle Circuit Court was packed this morning, and the defendant's side was filled with supporters, including two of the three sons of Roger Shifflett that he had raised.

Nita Irvine, who had worked with Barbara Morris at Stone-Robinson Elementary School for the past 10 years, explained why she'd been there for most of the trial: "To support two wonderful people and an innocent man. They'll get through this with their faith in God."

12 comments

The replies here resemble the current jury, a 50/50 split.

Can't send a man to jail on a 50/50 split.

It is a good article. The Defendant apparently said in a taped phone call: "ââ?¬Å?If I had to do it all again, it was well worth the 20 years.”

Can anybody come up with an innocent explanation for saying that?

So what if he is innocent? Should he be convicted solely to give closure? That type of justice was rampant throughout the 20th century and it is time for that to change. If the prosecutor cannot prove the case then he is innocent. Get real people.

The standard is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," not just he may be guilty, or looks guilty. Not even probably guilty. Its has to be beyond a reasonable doubt.

A six to six split? Seeing six of their colleagues have a reasonable doubt, the other six may realize their certainty is not really all that certain, so an outright acquittal remains possible. It is very unlikely that the six doubters can be persuaded their doubts are groundless. So its either an acquittal or a mistrial.

"Can anybody come up with an innocent explanation for saying that?"

It doesn't matter but I will play along.

Maybe he was talking about getting a dog and having to take care of it for 20 years. Maybe he was talking about buying a car and having to keep it for 20 years. Possibly talking about taking 20 years off his life because he smokes and drinks.

If he said "If I had to shoot him again...." that is a different story.

Guilty by circumstantial evidence is very dangerous. The same could happen to you or me any given day by a zealous lawyer or cop.

Sicko brings up a good point: our justice system has deteriorated into trial by file folder. Whatever some policeman writes or decides not to write, becomes the only reality the jury hears months or years later. The Supreme Court recently backed that down a bit, by requiring lab drug analysis to be introduced by an actual person in a white coat testifying (reading from his own file folder) "yes, the white substance was cocaine." As opposed to having some random police officer read from that same file folder. But its all about what's in the files. I saw a man sent to jail for ten days because he allegedly had not shown up for something, when everybody testified he did in fact show up: the overworked authorities simply neglected to note it in his file. I also have seen (personally seen) a local lawyer game the system in the file room of the District Court, pulling the file for an upcoming case and switching the papers into another file, so when the case came up the papers were missing and it could not go forward. So. What to do about all this? Ain't much can be done.

According to Wikipedia: "In 1854, [Judge Roy] Bean courted a young lady, who was kidnapped and forced to marry a Mexican officer. Bean challenged the groom to a duel and killed him. Six of the dead man's friends put Bean on a horse and tied a noose around his head, then left him to hang. The horse did not bolt, and after the men left, the bride, who had been hiding behind a tree, cut the rope. Bean was left with a permanent rope burn on his neck and a permanent stiff neck."

So now with a mistrial the Defendant in this case will know what it's like to be left hanging. Moral of the story, for Defendants: be nice to your girlfriend. Moral for Prosecutors: don't forget to slap the horse.

Ahh yeah, he was saying if he had it all to do over again, he would. He was speaking of getting tied up in a love triangle and actually placing himself in the position of becoming a "suspect".

My turn now, Judge Bean. Tell me why there was no evidence intoduced by the county police of the other suspects. Especially the suspect who had been smoking crack all night and ran out of money. None of the drug dealers would extend him credit. He magically left Garrett Square about the time Roger was killed and returned shortly thereafter with $100 plus to spend. He was never located or identified. And the defense couldn't have it admitted as evidence because it was "hearsay". Why was this information and suspect not in the original files, which of course WOULD NOT have made it hearsay. What about the employee that was tossed out of the store for his coming to work carrying a gun? where is that gun now? Was it a .22? Why was he never a suspect?

The jury got to hear what the county police wanted them to hear. All these other facts suddenly became "hearsay" and not admissible. Even though there's a hung jury, I don't think the man has received a fair trial.

Don't read me wrong, I want the murderer brought to justice too. Roger was a good friend of mine. In my opinion, the real murderer was the crack addict who had been smoking all night long and found more money somewhere about the same time Roger was killed.

quote: "Guilty by circumstantial evidence is very dangerous. The same could happen to you or me any given day by a zealous lawyer or cop."

Been there, done that. And have watched a judge call cops liars to their face while still on record and in open court. And in a second case, a judge told his baliff in chambers after a "not guilty" verdict that he couldn't believe an entire chain of command in a local police department had just committed perjury in his courtroom.

If they pull this crap on one of their own, what are they capable of when dealing with ordinary civilians?

Judge Bean, mistrial just declared.

Unless the county police can up with some new evidence, other than a DNA laced cigarette butt, they would be crazy to waste our tax money in attempting to try this case again.

I think this is a very good article. I whole heartly hope that they find the defendent guilty.
The Shifflett family has been living with this for over 20 years, it is time they had a sence of closing.
I am sure this is hard to sit and listen to, but lets hope the results will be worth all the time and patience

Alvin Lee needs to pay the piper, karma only waits so long...