Morrissey preps for trial that could be ‘career-ender’

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/16/2014, 5:55 a.m.
On Friday, Dec. 12, Delegate Morrissey pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Joe Morrissey

There will be no trial. On Friday, Dec. 12, Delegate Morrissey pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sentenced to serve three months in work release at the Richmond City Jail, allowing him to remain a General Assembly member and to keep his law license.

Delegate Joseph D. Morrissey is preparing to put his future in the hands of 12 strangers.

Next Monday, if all goes as scheduled, he will be in court as 12 people are chosen as jurors who will decide whether the flamboyant 57-year-old legislator illegally engaged in a sexual liaison with a minor.

The minor, who was 17 at the time, was a receptionist at his Highland Springs law office.

After a projected week of testimony, it will be up to the panel in Henrico County Circuit Court ultimately to determine if the bachelor father of three lands in prison or continues to represent the 74th House District that includes parts of Richmond and Henrico and Charles City counties.

Delegate Morrissey has proclaimed his innocence. He even rejected a prosecution offer to end the case by pleading no contest to a misdemeanor.

Instead, the combative lawmaker dubbed “Fighting Joe” for his aggressive manner in court is gambling that the jury will clear him of soliciting, possessing and distributing a nude photo of the girl via cell phone — all three felonies under a state law banning child pornography.

The indictment that a special grand jury issued June 30 also charges the delegate with a fourth felony — having sex with a minor under his supervision. He also is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor.

“I will win because I will be vindicated. I will be vindicated because of the facts and because of the evidence,” Delegate Morrissey declared after the indictment was issued, a stance he has maintained heading to the trial.

The delegate has declared the nude photo of the girl that authorities discovered on cell phones owned by him and the teen, now 18, were put there by a jealous woman who “was in love” with the teen and who hacked into their phones.

“Our experts have uncovered the hacking device, the serial number and the texts,” he said.

William F. Neely, the commonwealth’s attorney for Spotsylvania County who was appointed to handle the case, has said that neither he nor the police “found any evidence of hacking. Period.”

Still, Mr. Neely has noted that the case he will present will be based in large measure on the text messages and the photos from the delegate and alleged victim’s cell phone, particularly as Delegate Morrissey’s alleged lover has mostly issued public claims that there was no sexual relationship.

According to the bill of particulars Mr. Neely distributed with the indictment, the delegate sent text messages to the alleged victim confirming their “sexual liaison” and requesting a nude photograph “to help him fantasize about their next encounter.”

The girl allegedly responded with the nude photo that the delegate then is alleged to have sent to a friend.

A career prosecutor for 32 years, Mr. Neely was appointed to handle the case after Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor stepped aside to avoid any appearance of a conflict because of past ties with Delegate Morrissey, a fellow Democrat.

The case dates to August 2013, when the girl’s father called police to Delegate Morrissey’s residence with a claim his daughter was there, which proved to be the case.

Delegate Morrissey said later the girl was there to consult with him on a personal legal matter and denied any improper relationship, a stance that was backed up in repeated statements from the girl’s attorney and her mother, who described Delegate Morrissey as “a perfect gentleman” in his dealings with her daughter.

This case is obviously the most serious for the lawyer-politician who has made headlines for years for debacles that would have sidelined others.

His record is filled with incidents, including a widely publicized courthouse fistfight with another lawyer, allegations of fraud and berating and threatening judges.

Delegate Morrissey, who won election as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney in 1989, ran the office with swagger. While he had a strong track record of convictions, it was the “brawl in the hall,” a fight he had with defense attorney David P. Baugh at the Richmond courthouse that proved more memorable after he spent five days in jail.

Concern later was raised after it was disclosed that he received a payment to settle a criminal rape case. He later was upset in his bid for re-election as commonwealth’s attorney by David M. Hicks, now Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ top policy adviser and interim director of the city Department of Social Services.

Legal panels have described Delegate Morrissey, a graduate of the University of Virginia and Georgetown Law School, as unethical, unprofessional and deceitful.

During his career, the former high school wrestler has had his law license suspended and revoked by state and federal courts upset with his behavior.

He was disbarred for nine years before a sharply divided state Supreme Court reinstated his law license in 2012. (Mr. Neely was among lawyers who publicly opposed the reinstatement.)

In the General Assembly, Delegate Morrissey has become known for his passionate oratory and flair for drama. He once brandished an AK-47 assault rifle in the House chamber as he argued in vain for a weapons ban.

Despite the uproar surrounding his legal career, Delegate Morrissey has been popular with his constituents. Since 2007, the marathon campaigner easily has won four elections in his majority-black House district and, if cleared, likely would win re-election if he ran again for a fresh term next year. There has even been talk that he could run for mayor of Richmond in 2016.

However, Delegate Morrissey has acknowledged that the current charges have him on the ropes.

“Unless I’m vindicated,” he has said, “this will be a career-ender.”