04 OctWarning: This article contains information, language, and descriptions of acts that some may find extremely distressing The trial of Jeffrey Bernard Morris, the man accused of the horrific murder of poker pro Susie Zhao, got underway in a Michigan courtroom with jury selection and opening statements from both the prosecution and defence…
Morris stands accused of first-degree premeditated murder and felony murder for the death of 33-year-old Zhao, whose body was found in a Pontiac Lake State Recreation Park parking lot.
Susie had been beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted, and burned alive in one of the most horrific crimes to have been visited upon a member of the poker community.
62-year-old Jeffrey Bernard Morris was arrested shortly after Susie’s charred remains were discovered and has been remanded in custody ever since, with the pandemic, clerical errors, and a change of defence lawyer delaying the trial.
Yesterday, October 3rd, Honorable Judge Martha D. Anderson swore in the jury of 12 who will decide whether or not Jeffrey Bernard Morris is guilty of Susie Zhao’s murder or not.
A bearded Morris, who has pleaded not guilty, could be seen in shirt and jacket seated next to his defence lawyer in Oakland County’s Sixth Circuit Court in Clarkston.
His trial began in earnest today with jury selection, followed by the opening statements, with prosecuting attorney John Skrzynski first to speak.
John Skrzynski, Oakland County Prosecutor’s chief litigator, outlined the case for the prosecution, and explained what the prosecution needs to prove for each of the two charges brought against Morris:
First-degree premeditated murder requires that the
- Defendant caused the death
- Defendant Intended to kill
- Killing was premeditated
- A degree of wilful deliberation was involved (i.e. not a sudden impulse, but rather a thought out decision).
Felony murder charge requires the prosecution to prove that the
- Defendant caused the death
- Defendant intended to kill, or intended to do great bodily harm (GBH), or created a very high risk of death or GBH
- Did this while in commission of 2nd-degree, Criminal Sexual Conduct (which includes the following factors: touched the groin area, did so for sexual purposes, injured the victim, and used force)
Violent sexual practices
In what was unbearably difficult to listen to, and watch, for even seasoned reporters, the prosecution explained that Morris had an interest in extreme and often violent sexual practices. They intend to provide mobile phone evidence showing Morris had searched for such things prior to Susie’s murder.
Morris’s phone, the prosecution claim, contained images of these sexual practices, as well as a search image of plastic gas (fuel) can, which they believe he later bought and used to douse Susie in gasoline.
Morris could be seen on the Zoom courtroom stream fidgeting nervously and occasionally taking notes as the prosecution gave a brief resume of how Susie ended up at the Sherwood Motel, from where they claim Morris drove her to her death.
Phone records key to prosecution
Mobile phone records will be used to prove how Susie and her alleged killer were almost certainly together at the Sherwood Motel, later at a bar, and then again at the motel on the night she died.
Morris’s phone (and video evidence) will show that he was at a nearby store having shoplifted cable ties and a jar of Vaseline, returning at about midnight.
Later still that night, Morris’s phone was again the only one to leave the motel, which the prosecution claim is at odds with what Morris told police:
“…I fell asleep, and when I woke up she was gone.”
During this time, about 2am, it is claimed that Morris was in fact transporting Susie, still alive, to where her body was later found in the Pontiac Lake State Recreation Park parking lot.
Post Mortem findings will be difficult viewing
The prosecution also explained that the post-mortem results would prove that smoke in her lungs indicated she was alive when Morris set her body on fire.
The prosecution believe Morris severely sexually assaulted Susie shortly before setting her body alight, then left her to die. Later that morning, they claim, he was again looking at extreme pornography on his phone.
With this, the prosecution closed their opening argument.
Michael J. McCarthy, acting for Morris, opened by saying that Morris was finally looking forward to his “day of vindication”, and based his defence on the prosecution having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty.
McCarthy told the jury that there were no eye-witnesses to Susie’s death and that, by the end of the trial, “reasonable doubt will be sowed into the minds of all of you.”
Morris is unlikely to take the stand during his trial, which is expected to last one week and continues today (October 4th) with testimony from witnesses.
PokerTube will bring you daily reports on the Susie Zhao murder trial and will endeavour to be as sensitive as possible while still reporting the facts of the case.