Marital privilege: Ex-wife, son testify in murder trial
On day two of the trial of Alvin "Butch" Morris for the 1988 murder of Roger Shifflett, the defendant's ex-wife and son testified about his drinking problem and his desire to end his marriage nine days before Shifflett was killed, while the defense successfully prevented a witness from reciting one of the most explosive pieces of expected testimony, yet the prosecutor found a way to introduce the decades-old evidence anyway.
The day's key prosecution witness was Diane Houchens, who was married to Morris for 27 years. On June 11, 1988, Morris told Houchens, "I don't want to be married to you anymore," Houchens said on the witness stand. Morris married Shifflett's widow a little more than a year after the murder.
Houchens described going home for lunch on June 17, 1988, and seeing her husband's car parked at the Southwind Grocery, where, three days later, Shifflett would be shot five times. Shifflett's wife, Barbara, and Morris were the only people there, said Houchens.
The day of the murder, Houchens, having learned of the slaying, says she left work around 9:30am to discover that Morris wasn't at home. She said she drove to places where she thought he might be. When she returned to their house on Route 20, about 1.5 miles south of the Southwind store, she found Morris cutting the grass and explaining that he'd been to the landfill. Later, she said she asked him what he'd taken to the dump because brush was still there, and they usually burned brush.
Houchens also testified that the night a couple of days after Shifflett died, when his family was receiving friends at the church, she was discomforted by seeing Morris and Barbara Shifflett outside in a private conversation. "They were standing close together," she said. "No one else was there."
A couple of weeks after the murder, Houchens testified, she discovered that Morris had moved out of their house when she came home and found his clothes were gone. Later, coming by the house to pick up some bunk beds and a grill, Morris was, said Houchens, driving the victim's white pickup truck. Under cross examination, she noted that Morris' own truck had earlier broken down.
Houchens also testified that Morris owned a handgun that she last saw in a dresser drawer five years earlier in a previous home.
Yet Houchens was not allowed to repeat testimony from a preliminary hearing in which she said Morris had inadvertently awakened her between 6 and 6:30am on the morning of the murder climbing back into bed and saying he'd simply been to the bathroom.
The defendant invoked the legal concept of marital privilege to prevent Houchens from testifying before the jury about what he'd said while climbing into the marital bed. However, Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford read Houchens' testimony from the preliminary hearing to the jury.
Tim Morris, 47, the son of Butch Morris, testified that he worked at the Southwind and that a gun was kept in a cigar box there under the cash register. The son also described his relationship with his father in 1988 as improving.
"He gave up drinking," said the son. "He drank a lot. He was not a nice person when he drank."
While the jury was out of the courtroom, Lunsford read a statement Morris had made: "He said he started over with Mrs. Shifflett and her children." Morris and Roger Shifflett's widow married September 1, 1989.
The defense also tried to keep out evidence, such as a bullet casing collected at the Southwind by crime scene investigator and former sheriff candidate Larry Claytor, who just retired from Albemarle County Police Department last week.
Defense attorney Andr© Hakes noted that evidence collected and sealed by Claytor had been opened, and asked him if he would be able to identify a casing he'd picked up at the crime scene without the plastic bag it currently was in and the photos he'd taken. "No," said Claytor.
Hakes also attempted to keep out the medical examiner's report because the pathologist who did the autopsy had a stroke and was unable to testify about his report. Judge Cheryl Higgins allowed Dr. Deborah Kay from the medical examiner's office to testify about photographs of the five wounds on Shifflett's body, including the fatal shot to the back of his head.
The four sons of Roger Shifflett sat on the front row, divided by the death of their father. Shifflett's three younger sons– Randy, Rodney, and Lee–- opted to sit on the side of defendant Butch Morris, as they listened to testimony about the man who raised them and who is accused of murdering their biological father.
Across the aisle, where the family of Roger Shifflett gathered, his oldest son Jody sat on the front row, separated from younger brothers that he says he hasn't talked to in four years.
The trial is expected to continue at least through this week.