The Susie Zhao murder case is moving quickly and the next hearing is set for the 14th of September 2020. This will be a competency hearing for Jeffrey Morris, the man accused of murdering Zhao.
Something like this was almost certainly on the cards, given the extreme violence of the crimes. Zhao was found bound with zip ties in a Detroit park. Later it was determined that she had been violated with a baseball bat and then burned to death. Because of the extent of the burns, it took almost a week to link her identity to her corpse.
The hearing will determine whether or not Morris is capable of understanding the nature of the trial and whether he can rationally take part in his own defense. Such hearings are part of the US commitment to the right to a fair trial. Except in cases where the police murder the suspect first.
Competency hearings are civil, not criminal trials. So, Morris’s lawyer need only prove a “preponderance of evidence” that Morris is incompetent, as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The lower evidence standards here may worry those who hope to see clear justice done.
The limits of the possible
What happens if Morris is proved incompetent to stand trial?
Given the severity of the crime, the court will most likely remit him to a high-security mental hospital or a jail with appropriate facilities for his treatment.
They have already denied him bail. So the outpatient option for treatment seems unlikely. Morris has already been hospitalized once since his arrest.
If he seems cogent enough to be tried. He could be looking at life imprisonment for premeditated murder.
A second issue in getting Morris a fair trial is an increasing difficulty of finding an unbiased jury.
The case has a high profile in the Detroit area, and across the poker world. Attempts were made to keep media coverage from spoiling the jurors. For example, the judge slipped the initial hearing back from the 18th of August 2020 to the Friday before (the 14th).
The hope was most likely that this last minute adjustment would minimize media coverage. Fewer reporters would mean less coverage of the more grim and grisly details of the crime.
Have you heard of OJ?
Jurists who have seen the coverage of the crime are likely to be coming in with an opinion on Morris’s guilt.
The evidence that has got through to the press paints the following picture:
Morris, a homeless transient, has a decades-long rap-sheet that includes sexual and violent crime.
He picks Zhao up in his car and takes her to a nearby motel. The owner says he didn’t see Zhao that night but had seen her around before.
Morris has Zhao’s number in his phone, so they may well already have known each other. They both leave the hotel once to buy alcohol. After they return, cell phone data has them in the room until 5 AM. Both phones leave the hotel at that time.
Next, Morris drives to a nearby park. He spends seven minutes there and a few hours later a jogger finds a small patch of charred grass in the tranquility of a rural beauty spot. Zhao’s corpse, sexually assaulted and violently dispatched, lies here.
One can conduct their own test of bias here. Just examine your assumptions about guilt and character that form from that account. And you can see the problem faced by the courts.