After hearing arguments from the prosecution and defense regarding an additional Felony Murder charge against Jefferey Morris, the Susie Zhao murder trial has a new arraignment date. Judge Kostin of Clarkston’s 52nd District Court in Michigan deemed that the prosecution had “met the burden” of evidence required to enter the additional charge.
A felony murder charge indicates that the murderer killed Zhao during the commission of another felony. In this case, the other felony in question was criminal sexual misconduct. Zhao was sexually assaulted and her genitals injured with a blunt object.
The judge passed the case back to the Oakland County District Court. Morris will face arraignment there on March 18th, 2021.
A passerby found Susie Zhao’s body on July 13, 2020. Since then, police arrested Jeffery Morris on suspicion of having been the killer.
The 52nd District previously heard preliminary arguments on the case. This was last year. Originally, the case was due to go to trial on March 22. However, new information led to an additional Felony Murder charge. And to the holding of a new round of hearings.
The new evidence sheds further light on the last hours of Zhao’s life. The prosecution’s witnesses walked the court through the evidence meticulously.
The first witness was Melissa Ohlrich, the Autopsy Technician who collected DNA samples from Zhao’s body. She explained where the DNA evidence came from. Ohlrich also noted the grim details that the lack of hair samples was due to the extensive burns covering 90% of Zhao’s body. Previous hearings established that Zhao was alive when she was set on fire. This was evidenced by soot in her throat and lungs.
Cervical samples indicated a “major” DNA sample from a male. This sample was a solid match for Morris. There was also an additional “minor” male sample. The second sample was too small to be conclusively ID’d.
Detective Thomas Sarasin of the White Lake Township Police Department presented evidence that eliminated other close male relatives of Morris as sources for the major sample.
Sarasin also presented evidence from Morris’s phone. Among the 211,000 bits of data on Morris’s phone were videos of violent sexual imagery. Additionally, the phone contained search terms including “at a public park” and “punch-fisting.” The latter is an act that, when done without consent, is in line with the blunt force trauma Zhao’s genitals suffered before her death.
The defense’s turn
Morris’s defense attorney argued that the evidence was insufficient to link the murder and the sexual assault into a felony murder charge.
Attorney Johnson’s position was that the phone evidence was inconclusive. She maintained that the prosecution cannot prove that Morris was the one to have made the searches on his phone. Nor could they establish that he had watched the videos in close proximity to the time when the murder occurred.
Johnson also argued that the evidence for the timing of the injuries to Zhao’s genitals was inconclusive. As a result that vital link between the crime could not be proven.
Her third argument was that the presence of the minor DNA sample threw doubt on the identity of the killer.
However, the judge ruled that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to go to trial. Johnson will have to make her arguments to a jury of Morris’s peers.
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