21 years later: Alcohol, infidelity key to murder?
The trial of Alvin Lee “Butch” Morris for the 1988 murder of Roger Lee Shifflett began Monday, July 6, with prospective jurors asked whether testimony about alcohol and infidelity would affect their ability to remain impartial during the trial.
Shifflett was found shot to death early June 20, 1988, at the store he co-owned with his wife and inlaws, the Southwind Gas & Grocery on Route 20 south. He usually went in early to open up before going to work on the Norfolk and Southern Railroad.
Morris, 68, who married Shifflett’s widow, Barbara, shortly after the murder and who raised three of Roger Shifflett’s sons, was arrested last year and charged with the murder, as well as robbery, use of a firearm, and murder in the commission of a robbery.
Opening statements began around 6:45pm as Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford described the circumstantial case she intends to present against Morris, including audiotaped interviews he had with police in 1988 and 2008.
"They're important because of what Mr. Morris says, what he doesn't say, what he denies, and what he later retracts," said Lunsford.
For instance, Morris made contradictory statements about whether he had a handgun, said Lunsford.
She also referred to a trip to the local dump that Morris made the day of the slaying, leaving at home the brush that was the purported purpose of the trip.
"Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Mr. Morris said someone else confessed to him five times," said Lunsford. "Later he says, 'I can't remember.'"
Lunsford told the jury the Commonwealth does not have to prove motive, but noted that Morris left his wife, Diane Houchens, three weeks after the murder, and that within three weeks, he was driving the victim's car. Morris and Barbara Shifflett married September 1, 1989.
"There is no evidence against him," said defense attorney Dana Slater, holding up a sheet of blank paper to the jury to illustrate what she said is the prosecution's lack of evidence.
"The evidence will show there was a relationship between Barbara and Butch," said Slater. "You have to decide whether it was extramarital and contributed to the death of Roger Shifflett."
Called first by the prosecution to testify was Barbara Shifflett Morris, the center of the alleged love storm. However, she wasn't asked much about the accused man, other than explaining why his cigarette butts– which a preliminary hearing showed had his DNA and are crucial pieces of evidence– might have ended up there the morning of the murder. Butch Morris, said his eventual wife, was a regular at the store.
Southwind employee Steve Stover told the jury how he found Shifflett's body that morning. Stover testified that he brought breakfast for himself and Shifflett, paused in his two-tone Ford LTD to listen to a song on the stereo and then strolled inside–- only to find his boss lying motionless near an ice cream freezer.
He said he called police from a pay phone outside, then went back inside, grabbed a quarter from the open cash register drawer, and called Barbara Shifflett to deliver the bad news. Defense attorney Slater wanted to know how he knew Shifflett was dead.
"All I know," Stover responded, "he was in a puddle of blood."
The trial is expected to last thoughout the week and possibly into next week.
Correction 7/8/2009: Testimony indicates Morris went to the dump the day of the slaying, not the day after.