Assistant Kanawha prosecutor to retire
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Walking through the house where a brutal murder had taken place, Don Morris zoned in on the dozens of photographs on display in the living room.
"Our killer could be in one of these pictures for all we know," the assistant prosecutor recalled telling police before having them collect the photos as evidence.
Not long after the slaying, a distinct belt buckle that was found along with bloody clothes caught Morris' eye. He quickly scanned the photographs, immediately going to the one he recalled of the victim, Everette Knapper, who was the vice principal at Stonewall Jackson Middle School. Knapper was standing with his arm around a young man in the photograph -- who was wearing the belt.
A jury convicted Richard Lawson of first-degree murder in Knapper's death in 1997.
Nearly three decades of experience will be gone from the Kanawha County Prosecutor's Office when Morris, 55, retires next month. He's handled close to 200 murder cases and prosecuted thousands of lesser crimes in his 27 years as an assistant.
"It's always good to go to the scene," Morris said last week, adding, however, that he'll never forget the smells. Or, the way it feels to recognize a victim, like once at the scene of a triple homicide, where three bodies were discovered around a kitchen table.
"When I saw her laying there I knew who she was. She had been a witness in another murder case," Morris recalled. "That really put things into perspective."
The tears Morris has shed during some of his closing arguments are real, although some public defenders don't believe him, he said with a smile. However, even as emotional as Morris sometimes gets during trial, he admits he can't truly understand what a victim's family goes through.
"There's no way I can possibly fully understand their pain," he said.
But what he can do, he does, like help them understand their case. "I don't sugarcoat things for them," he said. "I tell them the problems we have."
And, he listens.
"They sometimes just want to know someone in the system is listening," he said.
He also sometimes does something he learned from his mentor and asks for a photograph of the victim to place in his office while working their case. Pete Brown, who was "first assistant" when Morris joined the office, served as one of Morris' mentors, he said.
"From time to time I'll look over at it and hope they know I'm doing the best I can," Morris said, shifting his gaze to his bookcase where other photographs are arranged.
His most memorable murder case was that of Rickey Holley, who was found guilty of first-degree murder after nearly decapitating his estranged wife to make her fit more easily into a plastic toolbox, which was found floating in the Kanawha River.
"I wrote the search warrant after the body was found," Morris recalled. "By chance, I asked for the key to the toolbox. One of the detectives went to his house and found a big wad of keys and found the one that matched the toolbox."
Bill Forbes, who served as Kanawha prosecutor for 12 years, recalled a handful of murder cases he tried with Morris.
"He was ethical, he was tireless, he was fair and I considered him to be, really, the best young lawyer that developed while I was in the prosecutor's office," Forbes said.
Morris grew up in Huntington and attended Marshall University. He had always wanted to be a police officer, but decided to go to law school at West Virginia University instead.
Still, he works extremely close with police as a prosecutor and credits most of the convictions he's gotten to police. "They make you look good," he said.
"Don is irreplaceable," said Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants. "Everybody at the office has learned from Don ... Every time I see him try a case, I say, 'Man, how can he top this?' And he does."
"What I learned from Don Morris," said assistant prosecutor Fred Giggenbach, who has worked with Morris for eight years, "is often it's not what you do in trial, but sometimes what you quietly don't do in trial that can make a difference between winning or losing a jury trial."
Although Morris said he has always had a strong desire to put criminals in jail, not everyone who commits a crime belongs there, including many nonviolent offenders.
After he leaves his life as a prosecutor, Morris said he might explore the other side and find work as a defense attorney.
"After 27 years, I know everybody is not guilty of what they're charged with. So many come across my desk that we don't charge," Morris said. "And I certainly never want to lay down at night thinking I locked up an innocent person."
@tag:Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.