CAÑON CITY — Their case crippled by judicial sanctions, prosecutors on Tuesday abruptly dropped all charges against Barry Morphew in the death of his wife Suzanne Morphew, just nine days before the murder case was set to go to trial and nearly two years after the woman disappeared from her Chaffee County home.
The move by 11th Judicial District Attorney Linda Stanley comes after the judge presiding in the case blocked the prosecution from using most of its expert witnesses at trial as punishment for violating discovery rules — and as prosecutors say they’re close to finding Suzanne Morphew’s body.
Barry Morphew, 54, had been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Suzanne Morphew, 49. She was reported missing on May 10, 2020, prompting an extensive yearlong search, but her body was never found.
Prosecutors argued Barry Morphew killed his wife on the evening of May 9, 2020, after discovering her nearly 2-year extramarital affair, then disposed of her body and staged a bike crash before leaving early the next day to work in Broomfield. Morphew maintains he left his wife asleep in bed on the morning she disappeared and has argued she was abducted or ran away.
Fremont County District Court Judge Ramsey Lama on Tuesday granted the prosecution’s 11-page motion to dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning the district attorney can refile the charges in the future.
In the motion, Stanley wrote that she believes investigators are close to finding Suzanne Morphew’s body, and that they are searching the “mountainous region” near Barry Morphew’s home but have been hindered by deep snow.
“If the body proves to be there, further forensic examination could potentially inculpate or exculpate the Defendant, which is incredibly important evidence for the jury to hear in determining the merits of the case,” the motion reads.
Barry Morphew’s defense attorney, Iris Eytan, argued in court Tuesday that the case should be dismissed with prejudice so that it could not be refiled. She said Stanley was acting in bad faith and dismissing the case to avoid the steep sanctions over the discovery violations. She accused the prosecution of “judge shopping.”
“They’re going to try this case again, they’re going to evade the court’s ruling,” Eytan argued in court.
Lama rejected that argument, saying he did not find bad faith and that it was reasonable for the prosecution to reassess their case after he limited their expert witnesses.
“Negligent, bordering on reckless”
The judge previously excluded 12 of the prosecution’s 14 expert witnesses in the case as punishment for the district attorney’s negligent and “arguably reckless” pattern of violating discovery rules, he wrote in an April 8 order.
Prosecutors are required to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense ahead of trial. But Stanley and her team repeatedly missed deadlines, misrepresented evidence and failed to turn over key information, Lama found.
“Over the last eight months and over multiple days of hearings, the Court has witnessed a pattern of disregard by the People towards its Rule 16 obligations… This Court has repeatedly noted it does not, in any way, condone the People’s behavior,” Lama wrote in the 20-page order. “The behavior has, in the Court’s eyes, been recognizably consistent. While the Court… does not find this pattern willful based on the record, the Court does find this pattern to be negligent, bordering on reckless.”
Prosecutors did not properly tell defense attorneys about unknown male DNA that was found in Suzanne Morphew’s vehicle or that the DNA profile partially matched samples from three unsolved sex assaults across the country. Stanley’s office also failed to meet several deadlines for disclosing the expected thrust of their expert witnesses’ testimony, the order says.
Because of those failures, Lama said prosecution experts in DNA, vehicle data and cell phone data analysis could not testify during the jury trial — essentially excluding information that the prosecution said in court filings was “critical” to their case.
“The Court functionally excluded the People’s best evidence to move forward in this case by severely limiting our expert’s testimony,” the motion to dismiss reads.
BREAKING: DA Linda Stanley files a motion to dismiss in the murder case against Barry Morphew, charged with killing his wife in Chaffee County in 2020. Court is taking a 15 min recess to consider the motion. @denverpost
— Shelly Bradbury (@ShellyBradbury) April 19, 2022
Denver defense attorney David Lane said Monday that the sanctions imposed in the Morphew case were unusual and he would have liked to see even more severe punishment.
“Most prosecutors play within the rules of professionalism and ethics,” he said. “You don’t really see it very often. But these prosecutors apparently have never read these rules, much less complied with them. It’s very unusual to have all these shenanigans come up in one case.”
He suggested Lama should have taken additional steps to punish the violations, like recommending the prosecutors face disciplinary action or holding them in contempt of court.
“Striking witnesses is a pretty strong remedy and I commend the judge for doing that,” Lane said. “But they apparently haven’t learned their lesson even from that.”
Bond lifted, jury trial canceled
During and after Tuesday’s hearing, Barry Morphew raised and hugged his daughters. He declined to comment as he left court. His bond was lifted, his GPS monitoring will end, and his passport will be returned. The jury trial, for which 1,000 people had been summoned to appear for jury selection beginning April 28, was canceled.
Suzanne Morphew’s family supports the dismissal of charges at this time, though for different reasons. Morphew’s daughters believe he is innocent, they said in court Tuesday, but Suzanne Morphew’s siblings hope to see the murder case renewed in the future.
Macy Morphew said in court Tuesday that she was looking forward to taking time to heal and “hopefully finding out what really happened to our mom.”
“We fully support this dismissal,” Mallory Morphew said. “We know our dad didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Suzanne Morphew’s brother, David Moorman, appeared virtually and told Lama he hoped to “see this through to the end.”
“I’m sure we’ll be back in this courtroom in the future and I look forward to that day,” he said.
After the hearing, Eytan said she was disappointed not to bring the case to trial, because she believed Barry Morphew would have been acquitted and could have cleared his name, instead of community members having the perception that he “got away with murder.”
“The prosecution was manufacturing a murder case,” she said.
Stanley, the district attorney, declined to comment after the hearing.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism