Morris trial: Jury split, reconvenes Tuesday
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."