Joe down for count

Lawmakers call for his resignation

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/19/2014, 5:55 a.m.
Is Delegate Joseph D. “Joe” Morrissey an innocent man who took a plea deal because he feared a jury would ...
Delegate Joe Morrissey of Henrico County addresses the congregation Sunday at New Kingdom Christian Ministries in Highland Park as the church’s pastor, the Rev. Leonidas Young II, left, listens. Rev. Young, a former Richmond mayor, served time in prison after being convicted in 1999 of fraud and influence peddling. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Is Delegate Joseph D. “Joe” Morrissey an innocent man who took a plea deal because he feared a jury would convict him?

Or is he a guilty man who accepted a sweet deal to avoid a long prison stretch for having an illegal sexual relationship with an underage receptionist who worked at his law office?

It depends on whom you ask.

There are some certainties in this high-profile case that has been an attention-grabber for nearly 18 months: Delegate Morrissey did accept a deal.

The 57-year-old lawyer-politician entered an Alford plea Dec. 12, a form of a guilty plea in which he maintains his innocence while acknowledging the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him.

Delegate Morrissey was convicted, but solely on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Immediately, he was taken from the Henrico County Circuit Court to jail. He is now serving three months in Henrico County Jail-East in New Kent County.

He was actually sentenced to 12 months, with six months suspended. But typical of others in jail, he only must serve half the time.

Today, Delegate Morrissey is sleeping at the jail, but is on work release. According to Henrico Sheriff Michael L. Wade, Delegate Morrissey is allowed to spend 12 hours a day conducting his law practice, meeting constituents and doing business at his General Assembly office at the State Capitol in Downtown.

Another certainty is that Delegate Morrissey’s plea agreement with special prosecutor William F. Neely — and which was accepted by Judge J. Martin Bass of Stafford County, a retired judge hearing the case — brought to a screeching halt his trial on four felony charges related to his relationship with the teen. She is identified in the plea agreement as Myrna Pride.

The charges stem from authorities finding a nude photo of the young woman on his and her cell phones and text messages supporting the prosecution’s case that the delegate and the 17-year-old were lovers.

However, despite appearances, the plea deal did not settle the question of whether he had sex with the teen before she was 18.

Mr. Neely has no doubts. In an email to the Free Press, he stated, “I agreed to this plea deal because it compelled narcissistic Joe Morrissey to publicly admit for the first time to his criminal conduct; and it sent him directly to jail; and given his long disciplinary record and that contributing is a crime of moral turpitude in Virginia, it will also likely cost him both his law license and seat in the House.”

But Delegate Morrissey is equally adamant that he is innocent — that he did not have sex with the girl when she was 17, but could not afford the risk of a trial.

On Sunday, after attending a service at New Kingdom Christian Ministries in Richmond, he told reporters he accepted the plea on the advice of his legal team.

“They said, ‘Joe, this is not the best climate to go to trial with 12 strangers. You’ll be in a position of saying, I’m a lawyer, I’m a politician, trust me.’ The risk of trial was huge.

“I have a 2-year-old daughter, Kennedy — the joy of my life,” he continued. “My lawyers said it’s not worth the risk.

“My lawyers assured me that you’ll still have your day in court in a civil trial,” he said. “My lawyers promised me that everything … will come out. I just want my day in court to put on our evidence, to put on our tape recordings and let the public hear.

“And so, I entered in that plea, which allowed me to go to work and defend people, and allowed me to do my business in the General Assembly.”

And based on information in the plea agreement Mr. Neely filed with the court, there is room for reasonable doubt. The agreement spells out the strong circumstantial case that Mr. Neely planned to present.

But it also spells out a strong defense that Delegate Morrissey planned to mount.

That defense was to include testimony from Ms. Pride, now 18, that they did not have sex while she worked for him or when she went to his home.

And his case also was to include evidence that his cell phone, and the cell phone of Ms. Pride were hacked by her former girlfriend who he said placed and texted nude images of Ms. Pride on both phones.

Delegate Morrissey’s plea has triggered a torrent of calls for him to resign from office — including from the governor, attorney general and fellow Democrats in the General Assembly — and threats of expulsion from the House if he does not.

As of the Free Press deadline Wednesday night, he had not announced his decision on whether he would step down. Several people, including Henrico School Board member Lamont Bagby, have announced plans to run for his seat.

Delegate Morrissey is expected to announce his decision on Thursday, Dec. 18.

His future as a lawyer also could be in jeopardy.

Mr. Neely has sent the case to the Virginia State Bar, the regulatory body for attorneys that has indicated an interest in going after Delegate Morrissey’s law license for bringing disrepute on the legal profession.

Delegate Morrissey, a former Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, has a checkered past and only regained his law license two years ago.

He was disbarred in 2003 and returned to practice in 2012 on a split 4-3 decision of the state Supreme Court, which overruled the bar and restored his license.

In his press conference at the church on Sunday, Delegate Morrissey summed up his situation using a quote from his favorite author, Oscar Wilde: “‘The only difference between saints and sinners is that all saints have a past and all sinners have a future.’ I think I have a little bit of both.”