A Trust Betrayed
Capital punishment cases are always fought aggressively in Colorado, but the legal battle to save Jon Morris turned nasty early on.
The 38-year-old Morris's life will be on the line when he goes to trial in Denver on March 3 for the 1995 rape and murder of five-year-old Ashley Gray. Already the state public defender's office has filed hundreds of pre-trial motions, some of which contain personal attacks on Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, accusing him and his employees of playing political games and harboring hidden agendas.
The legal blitz isn't a surprise. Defense attorneys are still appealing Denver's most notorious death-penalty case more than ten years after Frank Rodriguez was convicted of the torture-murder of 54-year-old bookkeeper Lorraine Martelli. If history repeats itself, Morris's defense attorneys will use everything at their disposal to keep their client alive. In the Rodriguez case, that has meant extensive testimony about the alleged childhood abuse suffered by a man who as an adult savagely raped Martelli before stabbing her and stuffing her into the trunk of her car. In the Morris case, it may well mean an all-out assault on the less-than-wholesome lifestyle of Ashley Gray's parents, Paul and Sharon Gray, whose four school-aged children and a grandson were taken away by social workers following Ashley's death.
Denver prosecutors will most likely focus on the brutal nature of Ashley Gray's death, forcing the jury to envision a young girl left naked and mutilated in a dumpster by a crack-smoking thief she had been told was her friend. The DA's office also hopes to introduce evidence suggesting that Morris deserves death because he committed other heinous acts before he took his moonlight walk with Ashley Gray. If he is convicted of Gray's murder, prosecutors plan to call witnesses who could link Morris to the 1995 deaths of two Denver women.
The legal maneuvering in the Morris case is taking place against a background of political uncertainty and debate over the death penalty. And Morris's trial will be precedent-setting on two fronts. It will be the first held under a new state statute that places the decision of whether to condemn a defendant with a three-judge panel instead of with a jury. It also is the state's first capital case to be tried under a new law designed to streamline the handling of cases involving an insanity defense.
While the public has repeatedly and overwhelmingly voiced approval of capital punishment and the Colorado legislature is even now considering measures to shorten the appeals process in death-penalty cases, the American Bar Association earlier this month called for a temporary halt to executions. Until the process is administered more fairly, ABA officials announced, there should be a moratorium on carrying out the ultimate punishment.
The ABA's proclamation is likely to spark a new round of arguments, but it carries no legal weight. That means Denver's two death-penalty cases will continue to move ahead, inching slowly toward the day when Rodriguez and, perhaps, Morris may be strapped to a gurney at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City and poisoned to death.
In this first of a special Westword series on Denver's capital crimes, Karen Bowers examines the forthcoming Morris trial. At its core, the case is about crack: what the drug did to Morris, what it did to Ashley Gray's family, and how a kindergartner's fate became inextricably bound up with pushers and users and little rocks of cocaine.
"They're okay," says Paul Gray, indicating with a jerk of his head a trio of seedy-looking men who wait for him beside a dirt-packed front yard in Denver's Five Points neighborhood. "They're family."
Family? Even George, the white guy with the long, blond hair and dirty orange knit Broncos cap? "Yeah," says Gray. "He's family, too."
To Gray, "family" is an elastic concept, expanding and contracting to include friends, friends' kids, neighbors, drinking companions and mere acquaintances. He also counts among his family the homeless men and women he allows to sleep on his floor, in chairs, or wherever they can find room to stretch out. Back before his daughter Ashley was killed, and before Paul and his wife, Sharon, were evicted from their place on Stout Street, there were sometimes a dozen or more people living with them in the three-bedroom duplex. They survived by pooling food stamps, disability checks and whatever groceries they could scrounge from food banks and soup kitchens.
Jon Morris, too, was a member of the ever-evolving Gray family, living with the Grays on and off for six years. Paul and Sharon's five children--sixteen-year-old Paulette, twelve-year-old twins Paul Jr. and Paula, Jasmine, ten, and Ashley, the youngest--called him "Uncle Jon."
The three men loitering on the street corner this morning--Paul Gray's friend George McDaniel, a second individual who introduces himself as "Candyman" and a third who doesn't introduce himself at all--also were sometime residents of the Stout Street duplex and still stay with the Grays on occasion.
"Paul is so kindhearted," McDaniel says. "We take care of one another."
Paul Gray's generosity seemingly has few limits. After securing from a visitor the promise of a ride to the Safeway store for himself, he invites his three buddies to accompany him. They gratefully crowd into the backseat of the car, filling it with the odor of stale alcohol. "Can't smoke in here, you ass-wipe," Gray tells McDaniel, who sloughs off the insult and tosses his cigarette butt into the street.
The men emerge from the grocery store carrying eight king-sized loaves of white bread, two packs of cigarettes and two twelve-packs of 3.2 beer. They'll share the bounty back at Gray's place.
Gray has allegedly shared more than bread and beer with his ever-changing circle of friends over the years. According to court documents, Jon Morris told a police detective that the Gray's Stout Street duplex was a "smokehouse," where Paul Gray and his friends felt free to whip out crack pipes, light up and then sleep it off.
The Grays don't live on Stout Street anymore--they were evicted last summer for what the public defender's office claims was "drug-related activity." The home was "always being visited by gang members and dope dealers," says one family friend. Police and prosecutors have refused to release documents listing police calls to the Stout Street duplex. But court documents reveal that officers had been summoned to the Gray home on several occasions, primarily to investigate complaints of drug use.
The Gray children don't live with their parents anymore, either. After Ashley was killed, social workers placed the four remaining minor children, along with the Grays' grandson, Tywon (born to Sharon's eldest daughter, 23-year-old Anntonette Hudson), in foster homes, deeming the flophouse atmosphere of the family home detrimental to their well-being.
Knowing that he helped bring down ruin upon his family is a source of anguish for Paul, says Barry Staten, a church youth leader who has come to know the Grays since Ashley's murder. "He's hurting real bad," Staten says of Paul. "He told me one time he was hurting because he, being the man, had overlooked a whole lot of stuff."
But all Paul Gray will say on this morning about Jon Morris, his former best friend, is "I didn't know he was like that."
"I knew he was weird," interjects McDaniel before extracting himself from the backseat. "I just got that feeling. He ripped me off for my Game Boy. He stole it from me. He was a klepto. He steals from his friends," McDaniel stresses, as if a simple act of thievery could explain everything else that happened.
"There are monsters in the world," McDaniel continues, "and Jon's one of 'em."
At the time Jon Morris was arrested in connection with the kidnapping, murder and sexual assault of Ashley Gray, he was a little-known quantity around the Denver Police Department. He did have a criminal record, but it was innocuous by homicide detectives' standards. Loitering. Trespassing. Theft. Second-degree burglary. Littering. Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. To police spokesman John Wyckoff, Morris was just "a street urchin," a man with "no job, no car and no home."
It wasn't always like that, says Morris's brother-in-law, Mike Lantz. Although he admits that much of what he knows about Morris comes secondhand, Lantz contends that Morris comes from "a pretty good family." Born in Colorado and educated in the Denver Public Schools, Morris still has family in the area. His grandmother, Ruth Whittier, and a stepbrother, Timothy Morris, could not be reached for comment.
"[Morris's] relatives owned this bar on Welton, and he worked there as a part-time bartender for years," says Lantz. Lantz's stepsister, Marilyn Jimmerson, knew Jon from his job at the bar. "She's known him for fifteen years off and on," Lantz adds.
"He talked about religion," Lantz says of Morris. "He talked about God. He talked about wanting to help people. But then he'd go against it. His mind was gone [because of] drugs. He had no morals."
According to Lantz, Jon Morris's problems began years ago. In a jailhouse interview after his arrest for Ashley Gray's murder, Morris told the Rocky Mountain News that he suffered from depression so debilitating that he couldn't handle a 1976 Army hitch or hold on to a job. He said, too, that he received a $259 monthly disability check due to his mental condition.
Morris managed to stay out of trouble with Colorado police until 1988, when he was nabbed for marijuana possession and drinking alcohol in a park. He racked up an average of one arrest per year after that.
His rap sheet is clean from January 1991 until August 3, 1994, however. Perhaps not coincidentally, Morris claims to have worked as an informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms during roughly that same period. Although Westword found no records to indicate that Morris was snitching for the feds, Morris filed a report with Denver police on August 22, 1994, alleging that his life had been threatened by a gun-toting man who warned, "Nigga, if I catch you alone, I'll kill ya!" According to the police report, Morris told officers that he had been an informant three years earlier and that the suspect had been after him ever since.
Each time Morris was arrested, he gave police a different home address, usually in or around the Five Points and Cole neighborhoods. In August 1994, when he was picked up for loitering and trespassing, he told police he was living at 2811 Stout Street--the Gray home.
Morris met Paul and Sharon Gray about six years ago, when the couple was living in Aurora. In some ways, their lives were following similar paths--both Grays were arrested by Aurora police in January 1992 for possession of cocaine.
George McDaniel became a regular at the Gray household around the same time Morris did. McDaniel was working as a taxi driver and had his own apartment back then, he says, "but I never knew Jon to have a place. The Grays took him in. They take in a lot of people."
When the Grays moved to Denver, Jon and George followed.
When Jon Morris wasn't bunking with the Grays, he most often overnighted at a run-down brick bungalow near the corner of Josephine Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard. He shared the space--which he described as filthy and plagued with inadequate plumbing--with another transient named Norma Fisher and at least three other adults and two young girls. A social worker who later inspected the residence called it "the grossest home I've ever been in."
Morris spent his days haunting establishments such as the 715 Club, a Welton Street bar that attracts as many patrons outside as it does inside--on any given day, clusters of men and women can be seen lingering on the sidewalk in front and in the parking lot in back.
By early 1995, according to his own accounts, Morris was heavily into crack. And as his drug use increased, his mental health took a nosedive. Court records show that Morris sought treatment for his problems at the Eastside Family Health Center. He allegedly had been suffering blackouts. He told the News that he'd been "begging and begging for help. I kept telling them that I was scared I was going to hurt somebody."
By that time, he may have killed somebody. Police say Morris is a prime suspect in the February 1995 death of 33-year-old Susan Boston, a prostitute and crack addict who frequented some of the same bars he did. The two ran into each other at the 715 Club on the night of February 2, 1995, Morris told police in an interview months later. He had some crack with him, and Boston wanted him to share it. She wanted a toke so bad, he claimed, that she offered him sex in trade. He refused, but Boston followed him down the street anyway, wheedling and pleading for a smoke.
Morris said he slipped into a shed in the 2400 block of Welton Street to smoke his crack. After that, he passed out. When he woke up, he said, he was covered in blood and had a piece of broken glass in his pocket.
Boston's body was found the next day, propped against a fence in the 2300 block of Glenarm Place. Her throat had been slashed, and she was clad in only a pair of stockings. Investigators remained baffled about the case until August, when Morris told Denver homicide detective Dixie Grimes he "may have had something to do with" Boston's murder.
Morris's friends, however, say they didn't notice anything different about him in the months following Boston's death. Shawna, a young woman who lived at the Gray home along with her mother and two siblings at the time of Ashley's murder, says Morris was "an all right guy," though she bases that evaluation in part on the fact that "he never made me clean up or nothing when he was babysitting us."
"He always seemed like he was happy," continues Shawna (not her real name). "Well, maybe not happy, but, you know, normal." Morris shared his food stamps with the Grays, she says, and he helped with repairs, "running around and fixing the sink and the mirrors if things broke around there.
"He'd hustle food, too," Shawna adds. "He'd go over to [a local food bank] to get food for them. With all those guests, they would run out of food."
Shawna says there were between eleven and fifteen people living in the Gray duplex during the spring and summer of 1995. "They put the girls in one room and the boys in one room," she adds. Shawna shared a bedroom with Paula Gray and Ashley. Paula's twin, Paul Jr., slept in a room with his nephew Tywon and two other boys.
Ashley, says Shawna, "was nice. I was teaching her how to swim." She also helped Ashley celebrate her kindergarten graduation at Gilpin Elementary School that summer, sharing cake and juice and dancing to music.
But in retrospect, Shawna says she knows that the Gray household was not a good environment for Ashley and the other kids. "All those people in and out," she says. "I guess it wasn't safe."
On July 27, 1995, police were called to the Stout Street duplex on a report of a domestic fight. When officer Daniel Rojas arrived, he wrote in his report, he spotted four or five adults drinking and relaxing on the porch. Paulette Gray, then fourteen, had called police after her mother and a houseguest, Ray Perry, began arguing. Perry told officers the fight began when Sharon Gray shoved him. Sharon Gray admitted losing her temper and told officers that it had all been a "misunderstanding" and that she didn't wish to press charges.
That might have marked the end of Rojas's involvement, except that the condition of the home raised questions in the officer's mind. Rojas noted in his report of the incident that "a number of kids [were] running in and out and around the house" and that when he asked Sharon how many people lived there with her and her husband, she "became nervous" and denied that anyone else was staying there.
As Rojas prepared to drive away, he later wrote, he saw a "known convicted crack dealer" park his car nearby and then enter the Gray home. Because of the high volume of police calls that night, Rojas wrote, he took no further action.
Less than two weeks later, on August 5, 1995, the body of Morris's sometime housemate at the Josephine Street bungalow, Norma Fisher, was found in the backseat of a burning 1977 Cadillac that had been parked behind the home. Morris placed the 911 call reporting the fire, and police questioned him and his roommates about Fisher. The cause of death was listed as smoke inhalation. The case was not reopened as a possible homicide until later that month, after Ashley Gray's body was found in a garbage bin.
On the evening of August 10, 1995, Jon Morris ran into his old buddy Paul Gray outside a Five Points bar. They talked, and Gray invited Morris to accompany him back to the duplex.
It was another full house at the Gray home that night. In addition to the family members and other hangers on, Ashley had invited a friend, age six, to sleep over.
The two little girls were already in bed when, sometime after 10 p.m., Jon Morris went to their room and asked if they wanted to go with him to the store for some candy. The prospect of a treat and a chance to stay up late appealed to the girls. They dressed--Ashley in a white blouse, red-and-blue shorts and sneakers--and left with Morris.
Paul Gray later told police that he was sitting on the front porch when the trio departed; if he had any objection to his daughter being out so late, he didn't voice it to Morris. (An informant would later tell homicide detective Grimes that Morris claimed to have given the Grays money and food stamps that night so they could buy him some crack. When it got late and he still didn't have his drugs or his money, the informant said, Morris left with the girls.)
By chance, the brother of Ashley's six-year-old friend came upon Morris and the girls as they walked down an alley, away from Stout Street. Police say the boy grabbed his sister and scolded her. "Don't go with him--he's a pervert," the boy said. Ashley told the boy not to worry. "This guy is my friend," she replied. The boy was unswayed by Ashley's reassurances; he took his sister home with him.
Sometime between 10:30 and 11 p.m., Ashley's older sister Paulette told police, she saw Jon Morris walking alone near Curtis Park, about four blocks from the Gray home. She said Morris had a stain on the right leg of his jeans. She said it looked like blood.
A few minutes before midnight, Sharon Gray phoned police to report that her daughter was missing. Through the night, more and more officers were assigned to help look for Ashley. At 5:30 a.m., officers with the SWAT team formed two search groups, going door-to-door in the neighborhoods near Curtis Park where Ashley had last been seen.
Denver's TV and radio stations were quick to get word out of a missing child, and Rolland Plamondon heard about the search as he got ready to head for his job at Atlas Pattern Works. "I heard they were looking around 28th and Champa," he says, "and we work about six blocks away. I had a bad feeling about it. A strong feeling."
The industrial area around Atlas has changed some with the opening of Coors Field, which is just a stone's throw from the building. A number of homeless shelters have moved, taking with them some of the heroin traffic and the urine-soaked men who slept in the doorways. But it's still not a pleasant neighborhood, especially at night.
Plamondon began looking around the company property for the little girl as soon as he got to work. Then he checked a trash dumpster parked next to a neighboring building. "It looked like someone had emptied out the dumpster on the ground and then put some stuff back in," Plamondon says. "When I looked in, all I could see was the top of her head.
"I immediately called 911," he says. "I told them I had found the little girl they were looking for. The police were already in the area, and they were here in a matter of minutes."
Plamondon was sitting in a police car answering questions when officers reported that they'd apprehended someone in connection with Ashley's disappearance.
At approximately 11 p.m. on the night Ashley vanished, Jon Morris appeared at the door of Mike Lantz's house on Gaylord Street. Morris had begun seeing Lantz's stepsister, Marilyn, about a month earlier. And because Marilyn had been staying in Lantz's basement, Lantz had come to know Morris.
Marilyn wasn't home that night, Lantz says, but he allowed Jon to come in and sleep in her room, anyway. "When he came in that night," Lantz says, "He was very tired. I didn't see any blood. I didn't see any sign that he'd been doing drugs."
Lantz was watching television the following morning when he saw a report about a missing girl. Wanted for questioning in connection with her disappearance, the news anchor said, was a man named Jon Morris. "I wasn't 100 percent sure [Jon] was the person police were looking for," Lantz says, "because the picture on television didn't look exactly like him. But I woke him up and told him the police were looking for him. I asked him, 'Do you know that little girl?'" Lantz says Morris told him that he did know Ashley and that he'd taken her to the store.
"When he said that," Lantz recalls, "I figured he was the right guy."
Morris himself phoned the police. Then he called the Grays. He was speaking on the phone with one of the family members when officers arrived to pick him up.
Initially, Morris proved more than willing to speak with police, though he denied knowing precisely what had happened after he left the Gray home that night. Detective Grimes would later write in an affidavit that in a videotaped interview with her, "Morris finally admitted to me that he did not know what he did, but that he did kill Ashley. Morris remembers Ashley lying at his feet. He picked her up and carried her to a trash bin. Morris put her in the trash bin, then left."
Morris told Grimes he didn't remember sexually assaulting Ashley. But she had been raped--so violently, in fact, that the medical examiner who performed the autopsy told prosecutors it was impossible to determine whether Ashley had been assaulted anally, vaginally or both. The autopsy report concludes that death was likely due to "blunt force trauma to the rectovaginal region, probably combined with asphyxia."
Ashley's funeral was a surreal affair. With the family's permission and the help of donations from the community, Mark Pipkin, owner of Pipkin Mortuary, chose to create what he called a "memory picture" in order to erase the image of the little girl's naked, bloodied body lying in garbage. He also wanted her to be surrounded by everything she was unable to have while she was alive.
And so for the viewing at the mortuary, Ashley was presented "lying in slumber" atop a bed covered with a lacy comforter. Balloons, flowers and stuffed animals were all around her. Nearby shelves were lined with children's books. Pink ballerina slippers adorned a bedside lamp. Her name, crafted from pink and white carnations, was displayed above the altar.
"It was real cool," Shawna says, "because she never had none of that stuff. They dressed her up pretty. I'd never seen her like that. It was amazing. Ever since I knew her, she never had things like that or clothes like that. She didn't dress poorly. She didn't dress dirty. But she was in a party dress, and I'd never seen her hair combed like that."
Ashley's twelve-year-old sister, Paula, was pleased with the tableau. "She looks pretty," Paula told a reporter after the memorial service. "They should fix all babies like that."
"I never seen anything like that in my life," Barry Staten says. "It blew my heart."
After the service, Ashley's body was placed in a gold and white coffin and taken to Fairmount Cemetery aboard a horse-drawn carriage.
The only time reality reared its head during the funeral rites was during the eulogy. "When you take that beautiful body God gave you and put dope and drugs in it, you've open-sesame'd so Satan can operate," the Reverend Jimmy Byars told the gathering. Ashley's accused slayer had been arrested, Byars continued, "but the other people who killed her were the drug pushers, the people who buy and use drugs, the society that's turned its back on this monster, and all of us who stand by. There are no innocent bystanders, because if you're standing by, you're not innocent. We are our brother's keeper."
The Grays hadn't been regular churchgoers up till then. But members of black congregations from the city's northeast neighborhoods reached out to the family following Ashley's death. They took up collections for the funeral and for the family. They brought food and offered counseling and companionship.
"We wanted to see to it that the girl was properly buried," says the Reverend Patrick Demmer of the Globeville Church of God in Christ. That done, Demmer began dropping by the house to pick up the younger Gray children and take them to church. But his chauffeuring duties were short-lived; less than a month after Ashley's death, the other Gray children were gone.
Homicide detectives had alerted social workers to their concerns about conditions at the Gray duplex, and it didn't take a great deal of inquiry to determine that the children might be better off elsewhere. Even the most forgiving church members who'd begun visiting the Gray home realized that the best thing that could happen to the children was to be taken from the house. "There was a lot of drug use," concedes one man. "You couldn't tell who was living there and who wasn't, because people were there on a continual basis. It was sad. Very sad."
The final decision to remove the children came after someone notified the Denver Department of Social Services that several of the Gray children were combing the neighborhood complaining about being hungry and asking for food. The children also told a social worker that a man named "Candyman" lived at their house and smoked crack with their father.
Although Shawna concedes that the Gray kids' home life wasn't ideal, she bristles at the notion that the children ever went hungry. "Some lady went around telling lies, saying that Sharon didn't feed her kids," she says. "And that's a lie, because even if [Sharon] didn't have nothing to eat, she'd feed her kids. Any mother would do that."
Social workers removed Paul Jr., Paula, Jasmine and Tywon from the home. Some of them went to live with "Miss Eva," a woman who volunteers at a food bank for Agape Christian Church and who cooks for the church's community kitchen.
Social workers wanted to take the teenaged Paulette from the home as well, but she refused. Paulette, says Shawna, was so upset about the prospect of living in a foster home that she ran away. "She finally turned herself in and went [to foster care] a year behind the others."
In much the same way that church members threw up a shield around the Grays, public defenders formed a protective ring around Jon Morris. Within two hours of Morris's capture, an attorney from the public defender's office was demanding to be allowed to see him--even though Morris himself hadn't requested an attorney. When police refused access (they said Morris hadn't yet been formally arrested), public defenders went to court seeking a protective order declaring that no one was to speak with Morris without an attorney present.
It was several more hours and two videotaped statements later before attorneys prevailed in their attempt to see Morris--and to get him to shut up. That delay became part and parcel of an unsuccessful motion by the public defenders to suppress all statements Morris made during the police interrogation.
But even after he'd talked with detectives, Morris wasn't through yapping. On August 13, without his attorneys' knowledge, Morris granted an interview to Lynn Bartels of the News, in which he discussed his mental problems and blackouts. His attorneys were livid. "Any statements alleged to have been made by Mr. Morris to Lynn Bartels were made involuntarily, and were not the product of a rational intellect and a free will," deputy state public defender Sharlene Reynolds wrote in a motion asking Denver District Judge Michael Mullins to keep Morris's statements to the News out of evidence. That motion is still pending.
Morris's attorneys also requested that Mullins issue an unprecedented order to the Denver Sheriff's Department freezing journalists out of the case. Officers, the public defenders demanded, were not even to relay messages from the news media asking Morris if he wanted to talk about his alleged crime. Mullins granted the request.
The public defenders quickly laid the groundwork for a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), claiming that Morris was so ill that he was unable to distinguish right from wrong. They were in for a big fight, however; just six weeks before Ashley's death, the laws regulating the use of the insanity defense had undergone significant changes.
Until July 1, 1995, Colorado was one of just two states that conducted two trials in insanity cases. The first trial was held to determine the defendant's mental state; if found sane, a second trial was held to determine guilt or innocence.
Under the old law, defendants in Colorado were permitted to plead NGRI and then, if they were judged sane during the sanity trial, could take another shot at a mental-illness defense by asserting an "impaired mental condition" during the second trial. The latter defense was designed for people who, while not legally insane, claimed that they were unable to act with deliberation or malice, necessary elements of a first-degree murder conviction.
That all changed in the 1995 legislative session, when lawmakers made two major alterations in the law. The biggest change was the elimination of the bifurcated trial system; for all crimes committed after July 1, 1995, the legislature decreed, issues of sanity and guilt would be decided at a single trial. In addition, lawmakers voted to eliminate "impaired mental condition" as a separate defense. Today, anyone who claims to be incapable of forming a culpable mental state gets just one chance to bring up mental-health issues--by pleading NGRI.
Soon after Morris's arrest, public defender Sharlene Reynolds argued that, due to a technicality, his case didn't fall under the new law and that Morris was eligible for a bifurcated trial. Mullins ruled in her favor, but it proved to be a hollow victory. Following Mullins's decision, members of the Denver District Attorney's office and the Colorado District Attorneys Council successfully lobbied the legislature to clear up imprecise language in the law. Mullins then ruled that Morris fell under the single-trial requirement spelled out in the newly drafted section.
The judge rejected Reynolds's claim that the law couldn't be applied retroactively. However, if Morris is convicted, the legislative wrangling is almost certain to resurface as grounds for an appeal.
The issue of the sanity trial took months to resolve, but it was far from the only bump in the road to an insanity plea. Because the Denver District Attorney's office had filed notice of its intent to seek the death penalty against Morris, it became difficult to obtain a psychiatric evaluation of him. The reason is that many psychiatrists are reluctant to sign on to capital cases. Denver psychiatrist Frederick Miller initially agreed to conduct a sanity evaluation of Morris, but he withdrew a short time later, claiming that he had been unaware at first that Morris could face the death penalty.
Miller was not the only doctor to refuse to evaluate Morris. Psychiatrists Jeffrey Metzner and Robert Miller each refused to be appointed to the case, citing the possibility of becoming a witness in a death-penalty case. When Montbello psychiatrist Kathy Morall agreed to be appointed, the public defender's office used her willingness to evaluate Morris as evidence of possible bias on her part.
In the end, all the arguing about issues of sanity was rendered moot. In September 1996 Morris changed his plea from NGRI to a simple "not guilty." Public defender Reynolds says the main reason the plea was changed was her desire to avoid arguing an insanity defense at a unitary trial.
It proved much easier for politics to make its way into the case. As the Morris case was moving through its preliminary stages, District Attorney Ritter was preparing to run for re-election against his former chief deputy, Craig Silverman. Silverman was critical of, among other things, Ritter's personal objection to the death penalty.
As soon as Ritter announced that he planned to ask for death in the Morris case, the public defender's office attacked. "Mr. Ritter has exploited his decision to seek the death penalty against Jon Morris and made it a credibility issue in his current campaign to remain District Attorney," Reynolds wrote in a motion to disqualify Ritter's office from trying the case.
That motion was followed days later by a more vitriolic attack. "The politics underlying the District Attorney's decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Morris are rank and obvious," Reynolds wrote. Ritter's announcement of his intent, she added, "was timed to maximize publicity for the District Attorney who would be up for re-election...and who had been portrayed in the press as being less than a strong death penalty proponent."
Ritter won't comment on why he chose to seek death in the Morris case. "In a death-penalty case," he explains, "everything is the subject of litigation."
Reynolds also was provided with legal fodder by the new law that puts judges, not jurors, in charge of whether to put to death defendants convicted in capital cases.
Until July 1, 1995, death-penalty cases were handled in two parts: After a jury found someone guilty, it would reconvene for a penalty phase to determine whether the defendant should live or die. But the same legislative session that brought changes in the laws regarding insanity pleas removed from jurors the burdensome duty of dictating the fate of the defendant. Instead, the new law requires that, following a finding of guilt, a panel of three judges makes the decision regarding death.
Politicians and prosecutors claimed the bill would make it easier to obtain death sentences and might even speed up the lengthy and costly appeals process. "Our experience in Denver is that jurors become overwhelmed by the death-penalty sentencing experience," says Ritter, who lobbied for the bill at the legislature. The last time Denver went for the death penalty, jurors were moved to tears by a public defender's dramatic account of the troubled childhood of Kevin Fears, who shot three men execution-style in the 1989 Bonnie Brae witness killings. The jury gave Fears life in prison.
Defense attorneys, by contrast, hailed the new law as a way to slow down the death-penalty process and gum up the works. By "goofing around with the law for political expediency," Denver defense attorney Craig Truman said at the time, the legislature had given defense lawyers new reasons to attack the death penalty on constitutional grounds.
And Sharlene Reynolds and her crew have attacked the law with a vengeance. Judges' decisions in such cases will be politicized to the extreme, she says. Reynolds claims that a lack of women and minorities on the bench will skew the cases. In addition, she says the fact that only one of the three judges must have attended the trial (the other two will review transcripts) puts into question the legitimacy of any decision.
The defense has also swamped Mullins's court with more than 400 pre-trial motions (four or five such motions are usual for non-capital cases, says prosecutor Sheila Rappaport) complaining about everything from name-calling on the part of prosecutors to a request that courtroom deputies be forced to wear plain clothes rather than uniforms. Many of the motions request that sanctions be levied against the prosecution. A proper sanction, Reynolds has told the judge again and again, would be to disallow the death penalty in Morris's case.
Even if Jon Morris is found guilty and ordered to die by lethal injection, he may well end up outliving many of the people charged with conducting his trial. Countrywide, condemned prisoners spend an average of ten years on death row before exhausting their appeals. Colorado has not executed anyone since 1967.
Morris is certainly behaving as if he expects to live a full life. On November 3, 1995, he married Marilyn Jimmerson in a quiet jailhouse ceremony. (Jimmerson would later claim marital privilege in attempting to keep DA's investigators from using her letters from Morris against him at trial. Judge Mullins rejected the argument, writing in an opinion that the couple is not truly married because, among other reasons, they have never been able to consummate the marriage.)
Meanwhile, Paul and Sharon Gray continue to lead a turbulent existence. On April 25, 1996, Denver police received a tip about possible drug use at the Gray duplex on Stout. After spotting an inordinate amount of foot traffic in and out of the house, officers stopped Paul Gray as he was leaving. Gray invited them inside, much to the chagrin of a guest who was seen discarding a still-warm crack pipe. Two people were arrested.
One week later the Denver SWAT team rammed down the door of the Gray's duplex and seized a small amount of crack.
The Grays were evicted last summer for what the public defender's office claims was drug-related activity. The family also lost the federal rent subsidy they'd been receiving for the duplex on Stout Street. Paul and Sharon Gray moved to an apartment a few blocks east of their former residence.
Soon thereafter, Barry Staten says, the Grays entered rehab to deal with their substance-abuse problems. "When they got out," Staten says, "the church helped them get housing. We're working with them to help better themselves so that when their children come home, it won't be like coming home to a crack addict."
The Grays have begun attending Agape Christian Church on a regular basis, says the Reverend Robert Woolfolk. Sharon has become a member of the congregation. One benefit of their attendance, Staten says, is that the Grays get to see their children, who attend the services with Miss Eva.
Says Woolfolk, "We're working toward getting [the children] back in the home."
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