Too long: Accused says 21-year murder trial delay unfair

news-morris-cropDNA belonging to Butch Morris was found on a cigarette at the Southwind Grocery where Roger Shifflett was slain.

At a pretrial hearing that stretched all day, the man accused of killing Roger Lee Shifflett 21 years ago argued that the length of time between the slaying and the trial violates his Constitutional rights to due process.

Alvin "Butch" Morris was charged in May 2008 with the murder of Shifflett, who was found shot execution style early June 20, 1988, at the Southwind Gas and Grocery on Route 20 that he and his wife Barbara co-owned and that he usually opened before heading to his job with Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Barbara Shifflett Morris, who later married the man accused of killing her husband, and her mother, Mildred Haney, took the stand and demonstrated how faulty their memories were of the day the father of five was brutally slain at the store where they all worked.

Haney, who closed out the register and took the money home every night, initially was unable to recall talking to police after Roger Shifflett was found dead.  She later acknowledged that she had gotten a call to bring a key and the cash drawer.

Barbara Morris, a secretary at Stone Robinson Elementary School, couldn't remember whether she wrote the employees' work schedule or told them verbally, and seemed uncertain who did the payroll. "I believe I did," she said in Albemarle Circuit Court.

Haney and Morris testified that all the store's records were burned around 2004– more than 15 years after the murder. They sold the store in 1989, and it was razed at the intersection where Avon Street Extended now hits Route 20.

Albemarle County Police investigators Steve Huffman and Courtney Craft said they'd forgotten a lot of details, but had reviewed their notes from the case file.

Butch Morris was a suspect early on, testified Huffman, but was never charged. "We did not have enough information that would have allowed us to get a conviction," he said.

Defense attorney Dana Slater focused on information from a witness, now deceased, who'd seen a two-tone Chevy Impala parked at the store around the time when Shifflett was shot, a car police could not connect to Morris.

The inability to call witnesses like that or to see the burned store records "does Constitutional harm to Mr. Morris' case," said Slater. "The right to confront witnesses is the heart of due process."

Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford countered that in pleading a violation of due process, the defense had to prove the prosecution intentionally delayed the trial to gain a tactical advantage. "You can't depend on a witness available today being alive tomorrow," said Lunsford.

Judge Cheryl Higgins said she would rule on the motion July 1, which is less than a week before Morris' July 6 trial is scheduled to begin.