Transcript details Morris abuse hearing

Published 12:07 pm Wednesday, May 31, 2017

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

SUFFOLK—A belt, a wooden spoon, a red spatula and a hose nozzle — four objects scrutinized and exhibited during a December preliminary hearing for Del. Rick Morris (R-64th), who is currently facing four charges of child cruelty and domestic abuse for allegedly beating his stepson.

A transcript of the hearing recently made available to newspapers reveals testimony about a bruising punishment of the child last September after he failed to perform his chores, which included feeding and watering animals on the family’s farm, and then lied about it.

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Morris allegedly swatted the boy’s hands with a wooden spoon, grazing his knuckles, and then used a belt, allegedly causing welting on his arm, according to the transcript.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The lengthy Dec. 15 hearing was closed to the media moments before it began via order of its presiding judge, Robert S. Brewbaker Jr., as it included the testimony of Morris’ 11-year-old stepson, a key witness. Brewbaker did not, however, bar members of the public from the courtroom.

In response to an appeal filed by the Daily Press, The Virginian-Pilot and The Smithfield Times, Judge Louis Lerner found Brewbaker had procedurally erred in closing the hearing Lerner, specially appointed to hear the case by the Supreme Court, ordered that the transcripts of the hearing be made available.

Morris entered the hearing with seven child abuse-related charges, and walked out with only one count, the September 2016 hand-swatting incident, certified to a grand jury by Brewbaker, who referred to evidence and testimony against Morris as “thin” and “problematic,” largely due to the boy’s undisputed past struggles with telling the truth.

Another felony charge and two misdemeanors were added by a grand jury in January, drawing from testimony in which Morris is accused of coming into his stepson’s bedroom and punching him in the stomach, which Brewbaker had dismissed.

When asked during the hearing, the boy described his relationship with Morris as “terrible,” and said he hated living on the farm. He ran away following the alleged hand-swatting incident to a neighbor’s house.

Kathryn Morris, the boy’s mother, who was going through a divorce with Morris during the time the charges were filed, testified that Morris had signed the boy up for Boy Scouts in an attempt to help him with his lying and misbehavior. The two parents had also agreed on punishment for the children, though did not always see eye-to-eye, according to Kathryn.

Another charge testified to by Morris’ stepson and tossed out by Brewbaker during the hearing included an instance in which Morris is supposed to have thrown a hose nozzle at the boy’s back while he was doing pushups outside as a punishment.

Kathryn testified to not seeing any bruises on the boy’s back following the alleged incident.

Regardless of whether the incident occurred, Brewbaker questioned whether it was enough to warrant the felony statute Commonwealth’s Attorney Shukita Massey was proposing it fall under.

“Is the Commonwealth saying that picking up a hose nozzle and throwing it at a child is so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life, a Class 6 felony?,” Brewbaker said.

Massey noted the weight of the object, and responded that “if it’s flown at the back of a child who is 11 and it did cause an injury as to that, that was a willful act.”

“What was the injury?” Brewbaker replied. “It hit him?”

He called the evidence insufficient for the charge, even if he “believed every word of that.”

According to the transcript, Brewbaker also spoke to what he saw as issues regarding the language of the statute referred to as “child endangerment,” another Class 6 felony under which two other counts against Morris had been filed referring to the time period of Aug. 1 to Aug. 31, 2016.

Brewbaker called the statute’s wording “puzzling, troubling,” as it applied to willfully causing the health of a child to be injured, which he said could be interpreted as any number of things, such as giving a child fried or spicy food.

“My problem goes not just to the evidence in this case but to that statute,” said Brewbaker. “Because I would expect I’ve been guilty of that statute 60 times in my parenting.”

With all other counts thrown out, Morris’ attorney Nicole Belote cross examined two of Morris’ older children, who testified positively to his character as a father, in an attempt to have the Sept. 16 hand-swatting child cruelty allegation stricken.

The effort, however, was unsuccessful, Brewbaker concluding that she hadn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the incident could not have happened.

Morris announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection. Morris is scheduled for trial Aug 23 on two felonies and two misdemeanors for child cruelty and domestic abuse for which he was indicted by a Suffolk grand jury in January.  {/mprestriction}