Jeffery Bernard Morris, a 62-year-old transient with a lengthy criminal record, was found guilty on two counts of murder Friday for the 2020 slaying of pro poker player Susie Zhao. A 12-person jury convicted Morris after less than an hour’s deliberation after lawyers for both sides presented their final arguments earlier in the day.
Morris, of Pontiac, Michigan, was convicted on charges of felony murder and premeditated murder in the death of Zhao, who was well known as “Susie Q” in the poker world. The jury reached the guilty verdicts after two days of testimony, which included extensive physical, digital, and circumstantial evidence incriminating Morris in Zhao’s killing.
The jury rejected possible options of finding Morris guilty of lesser second-degree murder penalties or of finding him innocent in the case. Morris will be sentenced at 10:00 a.m. on November 10, 2020 before Oakland County (Michigan) Circuit Judge Martha Anderson, who presided over the case. Morris faces the likelihood of two life sentences for the killing.
Closing arguments take up Friday morning’s court session
John Skrzynski, the Chief of Litigation for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, began Friday’s court session by summarizing and highlighting the most important facts in the case for the jury. Cel phone location-tracking records obtained from Morris’s and Zhao’s service providers incontrovertibly linked Morris to Zhao and placed them in close contact before her death in the early morning hours of July 13, 2020.
The most damning evidence regarding Morris’s premeditation in Zhao’s murder came from Morris’s phone, which was taken into evidence when Morris was arrested on July 31, 2020. Investigators extracted extensive internet search records, images and videos depicting the violent “fisting” sexual acts the prosecutors asserted that Morris inflicted upon Zhao.
Skrzynski described Morris’s acts as a “mixture of sex and violence and brutality” that imitated the violent sexual imagery found on his phone. “That’s what this guy is thinking,” he told the jury, while pointing at Morris. “That’s what this guy is looking at.”
The timeline constructed by Skrzynski and assistant prosecutor Brandon Barlog showed that Morris made nearly 400 web searches and visited over 1,900 websites throughout July of 2020 after typing in various combinations of search words depicting the sexual behavior he would inflict upon Zhao. After those acts, which included injuries inflicted upon Zhao, he doused a bound Zhao with gasoline and lit the still-alive Zhao on fire in a deserted forest-preserve parking lot a few miles west of Pontiac. Investigators also recovered Morris’s DNA from two vaginal swabs taken from Zhao’s body.
In addition to the violent sexual search terms favored by Morris, he also included words such as “Asian”, “Chinese”, and “Japanese”. Prosecutors did not need to belabor the point of Zhao’s Asian heritage, a native of China who immigrated to the U.S. and Michigan, with her parents, at age nine. Instead, as inferred by Skrzynski in Wednesday’s second day of testimony and Friday’s closing statement, Zhao unknowingly stumbled into a role in Morris’s fantasies when the two met three days before her death. “This is a sexual fantasy that this man has carried out,” Skrzynski told the jury.
Morris’s public defender tried to create reasonable doubt
Following Skrzynski’s closing presentation, which spanned more than two hours, Morris’s assigned defender, Michael McCarthy, tried to create the requisite “reasonable doubt” in jurors’ minds. McCarthy focused on perceived lapses in the multi-department investigation, including the failure of forensic analysts to DNA-match some cigarette butts found near the murder scene to Morris.
McCarthy further attempted to sow doubt by questioning the way in which the arresting officers questioned Morris immediately after his arrest. That interview was captured on dash-cam video while Morris sat handcuffed in the back seat of a police vehicle. McCarthy returned to a theme from Tuesday’s testimony, when he questioned why such an interview didn’t occur at a police station rather than at the scene of Morris’s arrest. The arresting detective confirmed that such street interviews were commonplace.
McCarthy also attempted to impugn the testimony of some of the case’s more circumstantial witnesses. Those included a female acquaintance of Morris’s who testified to his presence and behavior early on the morning of July 13, about three hours after the murder occurred. The public defender also continued to assail testimony given on Tuesday by the gas-station owner who sold Morris a one-gallon gas container and gas a day before Zhao’s murder.
The final statement was again given by Skrzynski in response to McCarthy’s assertions. Skrzynski grew increasing vitriolic as he rebutted the defense’s claims, often pointing to the seated Morris. “He killed Susie Zhao in the cruelest way,” said Skrzynski.
The three statements took up nearly four hours in total. Following a lunch break, the afternoon session resumed with Judge Anderson removing four of the 16 jurors by a random seat draw, leaving 12 to deliberate the case. Anderson then issued her final instructions before sequestering the jury. The jury needed less than one hour to briefly review the evidence and find Morris guilty as charged on both murder counts.
Featured image source: Oakland County Circuit Court