Testimony begins in Jeffery Bernard Morris murder trial

Haley Hintze
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Posted on: October 4, 2022 7:36 pm EDT

The first day of testimony in the murder trial of Jeffrey Bernard Morris, the accused killer of professional poker player Susie Zhao, has completed in an Oakland County (Michigan) Circuit Court. Morris, now 62, looked on as prosecutors called roughly half of the 17 witnesses and experts expected to testify.

Morris faces two murder charges in the July 2020 slaying of Zhao, a well-known player in the Los Angeles poker scene who had returned to Michigan just weeks earlier to live with her parents. Zhao, known as “Susie Q,” was last seen by family and friends on July 12, 2022. Her bound and burned body was discovered in a nature-preserve the following morning. A wide investigation soon followed, leading to Morris’s arrest nearly three weeks later.

Preliminary court matters wrapped on Monday

Before testimony began this morning before presiding judge Martha Anderson, final pre-trial procedures occupied Monday’s schedule. The final phase of jury selection took place, with prospective jurors questioned and approved or dismissed before the official 12-person jury was seated. Morris is charged with counts of felony murder and premeditated murder, and the jury must unanimously reach a verdict, or a hung jury could be declared.

The accused murderer of Susie Zhao, Jeffery Bernard Morris (at left), watches video footage of his arrest while his attorney, Michael McCarthy, takes notes.

Monday’s final pre-trial matters included the opening statements from both the Oakland County prosecutors and Morris’s state-appointed defense. The prosecution added a few details to what was already known, including that Zhao had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2018, and that she had been reported to have been acting erratically earlier in the day she met with Morris, according to Zhao’s parents and a close friend of Zhao’s.

The prosecutors also detailed more of the brutal sexual assault and killing. At some point in the hours-long encounter between Zhao and Morris, Zhao was zip-tied, and Morris is alleged to have assaulted her genital area through a violent technique called fisting; extensive bruising of Zhao in a matter correlating with such an assault was noted in the coroner’s report.

Morris’s defense counsel, Michael McCarthy, countered by telling the jury that Morris’s defense would focus on reasonable doubt, since there were no direct witnesses to the killing. McCarthy did acknowledge that Zhao died a violent death but instructed jurors to judge the matter clinically, rather than based on emotion.

First day of witness testimony begins with body’s discovery

Prosecutors followed a roughly chronical path through the case as it was received by Oakland County law enforcement, beginning with the discovery of Zhao’s body on the morning of July 13. One of the park workers who discovered the body testified to the circumstances surrounding the gruesome scene. That led to testimony from the Oakland County forensics department, whose pathologist assigned to the case testified in greater detail about the condition of Zhao’s body.

Horrifically, the 33-year-old Zhao had been bound with zip-ties, doused with gasoline, and set on fire while alive. The forensics expert testified that Zhao’s body was 90 percent covered with burns. The forensics team was still able to obtain DNA samples that prosecutors assert helped incriminate Morris in the case.

Gas-station owner’s testimony triggers animated cross-examination

Perhaps the most contentious exchanges during the trial’s first day of testimony came when the owner of a gas station near the Pontiac, Michigan motel where Zhao and Morris met testified regarding Morris’s two visits to the gas station on July 11 and 12. The station’s owner testified that Morris was a regular visitor to the station, and on July 11, tried to buy a two-gallon gas container and fill it with gas.

Oakland County prosecutors show the courtroom a gas container identical to the one Morris allegedly purchased the day before Zhao’s killing.

However, Morris had “only twenty dollars to work with,” and the station owner detailed how he instead sold Morris a one-gallon container, priced at $14.99, which with sales tax and a gallon of gas came to less than the $20 Morris had. Prosecutors also formally introduced into evidence a red one-gallon container like the one sold to Morris. The station owner further testified that Morris returned the following night and purchased gas for his car, this time using a credit card instead of cash.

When McCarthy began questioning the station owner, he focused on certain details and minor discrepancies in a police report written several weeks later. The station owner explained that cash purchases such as Morris’s on July 11 do not automatically generate printed receipts, but a printed record did exist for Morris’s July 12 purchase.

The station owner’s testimony prominently figures into the second felony charge filed against Morris, that of premeditated murder. The purchase of the gas can and contents would be part of the alleged plans Morris had for his meet-up with Zhao. Further, the station owner testified that investigators interviewed him just over a week after Morris’s second visit. Unfortunately for prosecutors, that visit came only hours after the station’s seven-day security-camera backup had been auto-deleted for the days in question. Therefore, prosecutors have only the owner’s testimony and the one printed receipt to rely upon, rather than security footage.

Department store security provides alleged shoplifting footage

Thorough security footage did come into the case via the testimony of a Meijer security manager later called to testify. Following Zhao’s murder and the identification of Morris as a possible suspect, he had been contacted through the store’s management to review footage and see if Morris could be identified, since one of the items found in Morris’s possession was a house-branded jar of petroleum jelly.

Along with several dozen still photos and the video footage, the security manager confirmed that Morris did visit the store not long before it closed on July 12. The video evidence tracked Morris’s minutes-long trip inside the store. The manager detailed where Morris appeared to have shoplifted the petroleum jelly and a bag of zip-ties before leaving the store without paying. Morris’s defense attorney confirmed via the manager’s testimony that Meijer did not pursue a shoplifting charge against Morris.

Detective testifies about circumstances of arrest

Another first-day witness was Oakland County Sheriff’s Office detective Joseph Marougi, who was one of the arresting officers that surrounded Morris and his vehicle weeks after the killing. Part of Sgt. Marougi’s testimony included the formal submission of bodycam footage showing Morris’s arrest, and a subsequent first interview about Zhao’s killing. Investigators had already linked Zhao to Morris via Zhao’s cel-phone records, including location-tracking data that paired Zhao’s phone (and location) to Morris’s for several hours during the period when the killing is alleged to have occurred.

Other witnesses included a Michigan State Police DNA analyst who examined the swabs taken from Zhao’s body and a friend of Zhao’s who testified about Zhao’s erratic state prior to her disappearance and subsequent murder. More witnesses will be called on Wednesday, with the case expected to enter jury deliberations before the end of the week.

Featured image source: Oakland County Circuit Court