Attorney: Judge dismisses 6 of 7 felony charges against Del. Rick Morris

Delegate Rick Morris (R - 64th District) walks into court for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 16, 2016. (WAVY Photo)

SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The attorney for Del. Rick Morris (R — 64th District) says a judge dismissed six of seven felony charges against him in his domestic abuse case Thursday.

One felony has been certified to a grand jury, Nicole Belote said. That charge involves an incident on Sept. 16, when Morris’ stepson alleges he was hit with a belt.

Seven misdemeanors were nolle prossed, meaning the charges were withdrawn, but it is possible that they can be brought back at a later time.

Morris was in court Thursday to face a preliminary hearing on the seven felonies, and a trial on the seven misdemeanors dealing with domestic assault. The charges stem from alleged altercations in the home with his wife and his stepson.

Police file more charges against Del. Rick Morris

When Del. Morris, an elected public official, arrived at the Godwin Courts Building in Suffolk Thursday, the media had been told by Judge Robert Brewbaker that a Virginian-Pilot camera was allowed in the courtroom.

WAVY confirmed with the clerk of the Suffolk Juvenile Domestic Relations Court that it was Judge Brewbaker’s decision to allow cameras. So, you can imagine the surprise when the media was told not only will there be no cameras in the courtroom, but also members of the media are not allowed in to take notes.

Access to the court hearing is important for transparency because Morris is a public figure and taxpayers want to know the status of his case. He represents thousands in the 64th District, which includes parts of Suffolk, Isle of Wight County, Prince George, Southampton, Surry, Sussex and Franklin City.

Keep in mind, media standards are never to report the identity of juvenile victims. WAVY-TV and other members of the media only wanted to know what happened in the courtroom.

Lawyers from both sides convinced the judge not to allow cameras, and apparently reporters as well. In court, Judge Brewbaker changed his mind, citing Virginia State Code 19.2-266, and banned all media, stating in his order, “After hearing the argument of counsel, and after due consideration, the objections of the Commonwealth and defendant are granted.”

Judge Brewbaker goes on in the order to say that cameras and reporters were banned.

“The media is hereby prohibited from being present in and from providing coverage of today’s hearings and proceedings.”

Read the order

This order was made without any input from members of the media: four print reporters and WAVY-TV. The group of journalists, Andy Fox included, pushed back against the judge’s ruling and asked a court deputy to approach the judge and tell him how unhappy reporters were with his decision. Judge Brewbaker agreed to hear from the media only after the order was sent.

Virginian-Pilot Reporter Margaret Matray was allowed in to address the judge. She says Judge Brewbaker told her the following statements, which are not direct quotes, but are summaries of what he said:

He did consider [the media request] before issuing the order.

Over-weighing that very important interest is his obligation under the law to prohibit coverage when the testimony involves or is given by a minor.

Again, we as reporters would never identify juvenile victims.

Reporter Hillary Smith reported back to her employer, The Daily Press, what happened. The Peninsula-based newspaper contacted Kaufman & Canoles attorney Johan Conrod, who immediately came to the courthouse. He found WAVY-TV still expressing concerns over what was happening to the court clerk.

Conrod was able to get an audience with Judge Brewbaker during a break. The most stunning thing the judge apparently said was that members of the public are allowed in.

“One has been in here for the entire hearing,” Conrod says he was told by the judge.

When Conrod pointed out the inconsistency with letting in the public and not the media, Judge Brewbaker apparently said, “I am not going to allow any media coverage.”

Conrod pointed out to the judge, Virginia State Code 16.1-302, which reads, “Proceedings in cases involving an adult charged with a crime the hearing…shall be open.”

The section allows the judge to close the proceedings anyway, but it also says, “If the proceedings are closed, the court shall state in writing its reasons and the statement should be made public.

This section makes it clear Judge Brewbaker can close the proceedings, but he must be more detailed on why he is closing the proceeding than just to write, “After hearing the arguments of counsel and after due consideration.” He needs to list the reasons why and the statements made by the defense and prosecution. It would appear the judge’s finding must be more detailed and thought out.

Conrod said, “I am going to write up a summary of what the judge said to me, and I am going to have him sign it, and make it part of the permanent record… He may not agree with what I write, but he at least will have to read it.”

WAVY-TV is still consulting with attorneys about the matter of media access in the courtroom.