Pretrial Hearing Set for April in Susie Zhao Case
(Trigger warning: Mention of sexual assault and murder)
The Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney is representing the People of the State of Michigan in a case that will move along more quickly this year. The case is against Jeffery Bernard Morris, who faces two felony murder charges in the death of poker player, daughter, and friend-to-many Susie Zhao.
Not only did the coronavirus pandemic hinder the pace at which a case can move through the court system in 2020, the prosecuting attorneys wanted to get this right. Morris is accused of brutally and heinously assaulting, terrorizing, and murdering Zhao. With that in mind, the state’s attorneys started with a charge of premeditated murder based on mostly circumstantial – but strong – evidence. In the months that followed, they began to accumulate DNA evidence, enough with which to file a second felony murder charge against Morris.
Now, they’re ready to go…but the system is still running behind due to the backlog of cases from the beginning of the pandemic.
At this point, the pre-trial hearing is set for April 15, 2021. At that time, we will learn when the trial may get underway.
Getting Caught Up
Susie Zhao, also known as Susie Q to her friends in poker, was a beloved member of the poker community. Her untimely death at the young age of 33 was shocking in and of itself, but the way the accused person took her life added more pain.
For those who want to catch up on Susie and the efforts to get justice for her family and friends, these are the links. (Beware of the details of sexual assault and murder.)
-The poker community mourned the loss of a beloved player, while details remained scarce.
–Authorities release the identity of the suspect and more details about Zhao’s murder.
-Judge binds Morris case over for trial after probable cause hearing in September.
–October hearing sets trial to begin March 22, 2021.
-Prosecutors proved the viability of a second murder charge against Morris in a March 8 hearing.
The next step was supposed to be the arraignment this week on March 18.
That didn’t happen because the defendant waived his arraignment and entered his plea on March 12. He signed the waiver, noting that he understood the charges and waived the open-court arraignment. He checked the box that read: “pleads not guilty to the charges.”
Circuit Judge Martha Anderson approved the plea, ordered Morris to remain in custody, and set the pre-trial hearing for April 15 at 10:30am.
The prosecuting attorneys, led by Kenneth Frazee, seem well-prepared to move forward. The trial witness list submitted to the court includes 54 names thus far, but there are dozens more that could be called if necessary.
Charges and Penalties
Morris faces two felony counts.
-Count 1. Homicide – Murder First Degree – Premeditated: Defendant, on or about July 13, 2020 did, deliberately, with the intent to kill, and with premeditation, kill and murder one Susie Zhao.
-Count 2. Homicide – Felony Murder: Defendant, on or about July 13, 2020 did, while in the perpetration of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree, and, or third degree, murder one Susie Zhao.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jessica Cooper filed paperwork on March 10 to inform the court of the intent to seek sentence enhancement. There are the two current pending aforementioned charges, but the attorney pointed out that Morris was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1989, attempt to deliver/manufacture a controlled substance in 1987, and assault with intent to rob while armed in 1981. Under Michigan’s Code of Criminal Procedure (MCL 769.12), the prosecutor may seek an enhanced sentence based on the defendant’s conviction of “any combination of three or more felonies or attempts to commit felonies.”
The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office already plans to seek life without parole on each felony charge. Since Michigan banned the death penalty in 1963, the notice of intent to seek sentence enhancement seems to be a safeguard. As explained by MCL 769.13, the previous convictions may be considered by the judge prior to sentencing and as a part of the sentencing considerations.
More to come at the April 15 pre-trial hearing.
Being in poker has allowed me to meet some coolass people. Susie was one of them, and she is a big reason why S Africa is one of my favorite trips. She brought incredible energy everywhere she went, but also struggled as many of us do. May her case be met with justice. pic.twitter.com/SormScAlW8
— Xuan Liu (@xxl23) July 23, 2020