Most charges against state delegate dropped

Published 10:18 am Friday, December 16, 2016

by Tracy Agnew
Suffolk News-Herald

A Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge on Thursday dismissed six of seven felony charges against a state delegate.

Delegate Richard Lee “Rick” Morris was charged with 14 counts of various crimes, stemming from alleged abuse of his wife and an adolescent child in the home.

Seven misdemeanor charges were not prosecuted, leaving only one case, involving alleged abuse of the child, on which prosecution is moving forward.

“I’m frustrated the police will bring charges without actually doing an investigation first,” Morris said by phone after the hearing. “It’s a shame the trial itself has to be the investigation … we have a bankrupt legal system.”

Morris, 47 at the time of his arrest in September, was charged with 14 crimes including felony cruelty and injuries to children, felony child endangerment, misdemeanor domestic assault involving a minor, misdemeanor domestic assault involving an adult female family member and assault and battery of a family member.

Court documents filed in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court earlier this year detailed the alleged abuse. The child told police Morris struck him on the hands and arms with a leather belt and a wooden spoon, leaving large welts and extensive bruising; made him sit and stand in a corner for several days; punched him in the stomach; and threw a hose nozzle at the boy when he was doing push-ups as punishment, according to the court documents.

The complaints also detailed alleged abuse by Morris of his wife on several occasions throughout the last year. She said he had, on various occasions, grabbed her by the neck and pushed her into walls, counters and pieces of furniture.

Following his arrest, Morris took out warrants against his wife, accusing her of being the instigator of violence in all of those incidents.

Republican leaders in the House of Delegates called for Morris’ resignation following the charges, but he refused to resign.

The one case that is moving forward will be heard by a grand jury, likely in January. Morris’ defense attorney, Nicole Belote, said that case involves an alleged Sept. 16 incident where the child accused Morris of striking him on the hands and arms.

Belote said the six charges were dismissed when she made a motion to strike after the commonwealth presented its evidence.

“Today’s hearing, I think, was very promising for us not only based on the evidence and how it came out but some of the judge’s comments about the evidence,” Belote said.

Local media representatives were not allowed in the courtroom for Thursday’s hearing.

Reporters from the Suffolk News-Herald, Virginian-Pilot, Daily Press, Smithfield Times and WAVY-TV10 were at the Suffolk courthouse at 1 p.m. Thursday, when the hearing was supposed to begin.

However, Judge Robert S. Brewbaker Jr. signed an order barring the reporters from the courtroom after hearing objections from both the Commonwealth’s Attorney as well as the delegate’s attorney.

The reporters were not permitted to speak before he made his decision.

Following the issuance of the order, the reporters protested the decision, and a bailiff relayed the message. The judge agreed to allow one of the reporters into the courtroom to state the reasons why they wanted to be allowed in.

A reporter from the Virginian-Pilot went in and argued that Morris is an elected official, and reporting on the case would serve the public interest and transparency.

Brewbaker responded that he did consider that argument before making his decision, the Virginian-Pilot reporter told colleagues. But Brewbaker said he had an obligation to prohibit coverage when the testimony is being given by a minor, and that prohibition outweighed the reporters’ objections.

In Brewbaker’s written order, he cited Virginia code section 19.2-266, which primarily addresses courtroom photography and television broadcasting of court cases in the commonwealth.

“After hearing the argument of counsel and after due consideration, the objections of the Commonwealth and the defendant are granted,” the order reads. “The media is hereby prohibited from being present in and from providing coverage of today’s hearing and proceedings.”

Belote said the media’s presence would not have affected how she presented her case but that the main concern was that there was a child involved.

Special prosecutor Shukita Massey of the Hampton Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office did not return an email Thursday. The hearing ended at about 8 p.m., Belote said.