Photo by Ash Daniel
Morrissey, a Democrat, has served in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2008.
“How’s everyone’s summer going? Mine’s going just swimmingly. All kinds of sharks around,” says a jovial Joe Morrissey, flashing his Tommy Carcetti smile to the crowd of 150-plus at the Satellite Restaurant on Jefferson Davis Highway.
The late-August occasion is Council-woman Reva Trammell’s 8th District meeting, which he has attended off and on for the past three years, ever since a string of shootings on the infamous road shook the community, Trammell says. Her council liaison speculates that Morrissey shows his face because he’s poising for a mayoral run, making in-roads in one of the city’s poorest and roughest districts. But that’s just gossip.
The sharks Morrissey is referring to, of course, are the state attorneys and Henrico County investigators who’ve levied four felony charges against him alleging that he had sex with a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm and used his cell phone to distribute pornographic images of her.
If Morrissey’s demeanor does not strike you as that of a man questioning his political mortality, it’s because he’s not. At least not openly. That’s not his style.
Some in the mostly elderly, mostly black crowd laugh at his sarcasm; they have seen the headlines in the Times-Dispatch and Richmond Free Press, and the video of his post-court hearing press conference in July, where he clued the public in to his defense strategy (basically, a third party planted the illicit text messages that investigators discovered and a special grand jury used to indict him) and dropped an F-bomb on live TV in the process.
“He’s crazy,” says a man leaning against the bar in the back of the room, a smile stretched across his face.
“He sure is,” a woman next to him replies. “But I love him.”
Morrissey may be a punch line elsewhere in the city, region and state, but to the people at the 8th District meeting, he’s still Fightin’ Joe.
The mythology of Joe Morrissey is filled with episodes bordering on outrageous, from a brawl outside of a courtroom to wielding an assault rifle on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates, where the Democrat represents the 74th legislative district covering Charles City County and parts of Henrico and Prince George counties, as well as parts of Hopewell and Richmond. Now facing damning allegations and up to 40 years in prison if convicted at a trial scheduled for mid-December, “he’s in a fight for his legal life, his political reputation and his personal reputation,” says Bob Holsworth, a political analyst and former dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences. “I think he needs both an exoneration, and the public needs to have a sense that the evidence against him is not compelling.”
There is a possibility that Morrissey will not stand trial until after the 2015 General Assembly session. A provision allows state lawmakers to delay court hearings scheduled within 30 days of the legislative session, which begins Jan. 14, as well as 30 days after it. At an August hearing, Morrissey’s defense team told the court he intends to proceed with the trial as scheduled. The nature of his charges preclude Morrissey from invoking the privilege for himself, but William Stanley Jr., a state senator on his defense team, could cite it and delay the trial until spring.
Morrissey has denied that any inappropriate activity occurred. The girl admitted to investigators that she lied about her age to gain employment at Morrissey’s law firm. Speaking through their lawyer, Sherri Thaxton, the former employee and her mother have denied that Morrissey had sex with the girl. Thaxton has represented Morrissey in the past and worked as co-counsel with him on an October murder trial. She also has donated to his political campaigns on three separate occasions, according to campaign finance reports made available online by the Virginia Public Access Project. She did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
If Morrissey possesses anything, it’s resilience. That invaluable trait has some questioning whether this latest scandal will be a death blow for his political career, or if the 57-year-old defense lawyer and state legislator will be acquitted of the charges and again rise when it seems impossible for him to do so.
The Jury is Out
At 23, campaigning for public office, Joe Morrissey told The Washington Post he wanted “to mean something.” At 40, facing jail time for criminal contempt, he told this magazine that life goes on. At 57, Morrissey faces decades in prison if convicted, and we are still without a verdict on the man.
Is he unfairly maligned by the press? Or has he gamed the legal system to produce second chance after second chance? Is he a fighter for the people? Or an opportunistic agitator?
Outside of the 8th District meeting, he reiterated his innocence, but wouldn’t commit to speaking further about his legal plight. In fact, few people contacted were willing to speak on the record about Morrissey. Not his law partner. Not his former legislative assistant. Not his ex-girlfriend.
Two weeks later, Morrissey sent a formal denial in a note typed on state letterhead and signed in blue ink, reading in part: “Regarding your request for an interview, should I be desirous of making a statement, I will certainly contact you.”
What information is available in the reams of public record documenting Morrissey’s lowest moments casts him in an unfavorable light. There are contempt charges and reprimands and lawsuits, and a lengthy back-and-forth with the Virginia State Bar over his law license that runs the gamut of indiscretions. Public records form the bedrock of many news stories published on Morrissey’s legal troubles, which may explain why some of his supporters perceive the media as berating him.
Thomas H. Roberts, a Richmond attorney who has tangled with Morrissey in the past, stressed strict reliance on the public record to verify facts. Doing so, he advised in a phone call, would help avoid the type of litigation that led to Style Weekly retracting a 2008 article, after Morrissey lobbed a $10.35 million lawsuit at the publication. The lawsuit was settled before going to trial; Style apologized and paid Morrissey an undisclosed sum. Before ending the call, Roberts warned, “Build a fortress around your story.”
What is not available in the records, supporters say, is the passion Morrissey shows when representing people. “When it comes to his client or even his friends, he will go all the way for them,” says Kirby Carmichael, a longtime Richmond radio personality who has known Morrissey since the late ’80s. He also has helped campaign for him, adding that Morrissey is driven by “an honest desire and care about people.”
“Back in the day, there were some lawyers in the city who would charge you five-, 10-, $15,000 for a case,” he says. “During that same time, Joe was taking the same case for $2,000 or less and sometimes pro bono. That’s why people love Joe.”
‘I’m Not a Menace’
Joseph Dee Morrissey was born Sept. 23, 1957, to parents William Fitzgerald and Jean. The couple had married two years earlier in Buffalo, New York, according to a 1955 announcement in the New York Times. William completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia before attending George Washington University School of Medicine. Jean worked at the U.S. Department of Defense at the time of the announcement.
The couple settled in Northern Virginia, to start their family. William worked as a cardiologist and Jean gave birth to six children, all of whom attended St. Michael’s parochial school from kindergarten through eighth grade.
The Morrisseys’ Irish Catholic heritage traces to John Morrissey, a New York state senator and operative in the Tammany Hall political machine, the leadership of which he regularly questioned, according to newspaper clippings from the period. John Morrissey was also a noted bare-knuckle boxer, a fact not lost on Joe, whose own bare-knuckle encounters earned him the nickname Fightin’ Joe. His private practice adopted the slogan “I will fight for you.” It’s still inscribed on his business cards.
During his teenage years, Morrissey discovered his talent as a wrestler, and was crowned state champion in his division. Like his father, he attended the University of Virginia, where he majored in economics. It was there that he first sought to hold public office: He campaigned for student council his sophomore year. With a head of disheveled hair, Morrissey grins in a 1977 issue of The Cavalier Daily next to a short blurb about his candidacy. Morrissey lost that election by two votes, he told a Washington Post reporter in 1981 while campaigning for public office again, this time in Northern Virginia.
At 23, Morrissey vied for the Republican nomination for a southwest Fairfax County House of Delegates seat. While pursuing a degree from the Georgetown Law Center, he campaigned door-to-door and enlisted his classmates to run his campaign. Morrissey’s exuberance wasn’t enough to distinguish him from his more experienced competitors, and he lost in the primary.
The Post published a follow-up after the vote that detailed two public brawls Morrissey was involved with (but not charged in), as well as nine traffic offenses he racked up in the seven months leading up to the primary. “I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. I’m the most honest person I know … I’m not a menace,” Morrissey is quoted as saying in the story.
Randy Freedman, who worked as the campaign’s press secretary, says he remembers how passionate and committed to political service Morrissey was at the time, and how “decidedly conservative his politics were across the board.”
Freedman says he hasn’t kept in touch with Morrissey since they graduated from Georgetown in 1982. Of the delegate’s current troubles, he says, “I would have never envisioned this with the way I knew Joe.”
It is Aug. 29 and Joe Morrissey is in court, though not in his usual role. He is the defendant.
He arrives carrying a poster board stuck with yellowing newspaper clippings — headlines and news photos of his earlier fame — and he deposits it behind the defense counsel table. He sits behind a trio of attorneys, spinning the top of a pen open and closed with his thumb, looking deep in thought.
It was an August night in 2013 when police first showed up to Morrissey’s Henrico County home. They had received a call from a parent who said his 17-year-old daughter was at the delegate’s house. Officers arrived at 11 p.m., and the girl was indeed there. Morrissey is alleged to have “stalled police for several minutes before delivering [the 17-year-old] to the police officers,” according to charges filed with Henrico County Circuit Court in June.
The indictments also claim Morrissey and the girl “engaged in repeated consensual acts of sexual intercourse … at his law office” and spent a night at a Norfolk hotel together two months after the initial police encounter when the girl was still underage.
On this day, Judge Martin Bass will hear a motion from the prosecution to move Morrissey’s trial date up in anticipation of one of his attorneys invoking a special legislative privilege to delay the trial until after the 2015 General Assembly session. The defense motions to have William Neely, the state’s lead prosecutor, dismissed because of what they characterize as a personal vendetta against Morrissey, as well as to have the special grand jury’s indictments thrown out.
Neely, a longtime commonwealth’s attorney for Spotsylvania County, wrote a letter to the Virginia State Bar in 2011, when Morrissey sought to regain his state law license. In the letter, the prosecutor was critical of Morrissey’s professional conduct as an attorney, but at the August hearing, he dismisses the accusation that he harbors ill will toward the defendant: “I could care less about Joe Morrissey; if I did [have a vendetta], why would I have offered him a plea offer straight away?”
Morrissey seethes as Neely talks. Unable to blurt an objection, he jots notes and whispers retorts hurriedly to his counsel. The pre-trial jostling ultimately results in nothing for either side, and when the hearing ends, he exits the courthouse to a smattering of reporters and TV cameras expecting a sound bite as juicy as last time. He doesn’t offer one today.
Practicing law is Joe Morrissey’s lifeblood. It is also the source of nearly all his public troubles.
An Oscar-worthy showman, Morrissey made his name as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney from 1989 to 1993. During that stint, and even before, his temper was his calling card. Morrissey was cited for contempt several times before his infamous fistfight outside of a jury trial with defense attorney David Baugh in 1991. Convicted of contempt again, he spent five days in jail after the incident. An inability to manage his anger in the courtroom foreshadowed later, more serious, problems.
In 1993, the State Bar suspended Morrissey’s law license for unethically brokering a plea deal to reduce a felony rape charge to a misdemeanor. The defendant’s father agreed to pay $50,000, half of which would go to the victim and the other half to charities of Morrissey’s choice — without the victim’s knowledge, according to his professional disciplinary record. The incident led to criminal bribery charges filed against Morrissey ahead of his re-election bid for commonwealth’s attorney, which he lost. A jury ultimately acquitted him of the charges, according to court records.
He returned to private practice in 1994, but again found himself embroiled in controversy in 1997, when he held a press conference to show video of a witness recanting grand jury testimony in a high-profile drug case involving Joel Harris, the city mayor’s chief of staff. Morrissey’s actions constituted a violation of legal procedure (Local Rule 57), a court found, and resulted in a 90-day jail sentence, 300 hours of community service and three years of probation, according to the disciplinary summary.
Then in July 1999 came another incident, this time with a handyman named Gary Wycoff, whom Morrissey had employed for many years. Wycoff told Morrissey he would not be able to complete work at Morrissey’s office on a particular day because he would be out of state. When the two met unexpectedly — at a time when Wycoff was supposedly out of town — Morrissey accused Wycoff of lying to him, and a fight ensued. Morrissey “repeatedly struck Mr. Wycoff in the face while Mr. Wycoff was lying on the ground defenseless, with Mr. Morrissey on top of him,” according to a 2002 Henrico County court summary of the case. “After Mr. Morrissey got up, he sprayed a garden hose into Mr. Wycoff’s face, which was bleeding heavily. Mr. Wycoff testified that this was torture.”
A jury found Morrissey guilty of misdemeanor assault and battery in October 1999. His punishment was a $2,500 fine and about $3,600 in court costs. In a subsequent civil trial, a jury awarded Wycoff punitive damages exceeding $1 million because of injuries he sustained. A judge later reduced it to about $400,000.
Morrissey was disbarred in 2001 from practicing law in federal court after a series of ethical missteps stemming from the Harris case.
In April 2003, the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board revoked his license for not giving “timely notice of the suspension of his law license to his clients, opposing counsel, and courts before which matters were pending; to make appropriate arrangements in compliance with the wishes of his clients; and to furnish proof thereof to the Virginia State Bar,” according to public records. By that time, Morrissey had left the country.
He first landed in Dublin, Ireland, where he earned a Master’s in Law degree from Trinity College and taught as a stand-out lecturer, described by the dean of Trinity Law School, Neville Cox, as “articulate, well researched, engaging, enthusiastic, humorous, and unbelievably dynamic,” according to public records.
Morrissey left Ireland after local media published reports about his disbarment and legal troubles in the United States. He moved to Australia in the fall of 2003 and began work at the University of New South Wales. Through a 13-week training program, he developed a relationship with Mark Tedeschi, the senior crown prosecutor for New South Wales. Morrissey, who sought to apply for a law license, courted Tedeschi’s support in the form of a recommendation. When Tedeschi later learned of Morrissey’s disbarment, he stated in an affidavit that it “caused me much personal embarrassment” and that he felt “betrayed” that Morrissey was not forthright with him, according to public records.
Morrissey’s application for a law license was denied in April 2006 by the New South Wales Bar, which wrote, “His character is marked by willful disobedience of court orders and rules, episodes of violence, a failure to make appropriate disclosure and lack of candor when dealing with his colleagues.”
He returned to the United States in the spring of 2006 and kept a low profile until mounting a run for the Democratic nomination to the 74th District seat the following year. Morrissey prevailed against four other candidates in the primary and won the general election with no opposition.
“The public in general has a lot of cynicism about politicians, but if they see someone who has an outside personality and is a fighter for them, they’re more willing to ignore bad that may come of it,” Holsworth says of voters’ willingness to look past Morrissey’s transgressions. “Beyond that, America likes redemption stories. It’s a forgiving culture. Morrissey came back, worked hard and went a lot further than anyone thought he could.”
Morrissey’s “superb” campaigning didn’t hurt his cause, either, Holsworth adds. Newspaper accounts of him wearing through shoe soles on long door-to-door missions or biking across his district appear before each election. Voters have re-elected Morrissey to the House three times. In each instance, he has vastly outspent his competitors, who haven’t earned more than 27 percent of the vote, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
His record as a legislator is unremarkable (all seven bills he patroned in 2014 were killed; 16 of 17 he patroned in 2013 were killed), though, to be fair, he is operating in the majority-Republican House and has typically sponsored liberal measures, such as a marriage-equality amendment, the restoration of rights for felons and a tax on plastic bags.
Only one of Morrissey’s colleagues in the General Assembly publicly called for his resignation after news of the indictment broke in late June. He said he would not step down.
‘Fighting the Same Fight’
It’s day two of an October murder trial — one of the last Morrissey will work before his own court date. His client is a woman accused of shooting two men at a South Side shopping center, one of whom later died from his injuries. She is a mother of three and a nurse at VCU Medical Center.
When it comes time for Morrissey to cross-examine the prosecution’s first witness of the day, he casually blows holes in her testimony through persistent questioning, his tone teetering between polite and aggressive. The witness, a middle-aged woman who was at the scene of the shooting, seems unsure of herself when under duress, and he pounces on inconsistencies between her testimony and the original account told to police.
As the hearing ticks by, the judge struggles to remain patient when reiterating to Morrissey the ground rules that she established at the start of the trial. In one instance, she spurns his vehement objection to the prosecution showing the jury a surveillance video that he will not have a chance to question the witness about, as it comes after his cross-examination. Overruled, he slumps back in his swivel chair. Looking incensed, he mutters to himself, “Unbelievable.”
Morrissey returned to the courtroom in 2013 after regaining his state law license, following a 4-3 decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia for reinstatement, despite a unanimous recommendation from the Virginia State Bar’s disciplinary board to deny his petition. Morrissey is still barred from practicing law in federal courtrooms.
The state Supreme Court did not render an opinion or provide reasoning for why it overruled the disciplinary board. “By rule, the Supreme Court of Virginia has the final say in any reinstatement case … . We respect the decision the court made,” says Edward Davis, who represented the State Bar in Morrissey’s reinstatement proceedings.
Leslie Haley, who spent 14 years as senior assistant ethics counsel for the State Bar, says any time the Supreme Court overturns a bar recommendation, it is surprising. The decision ultimately may not matter, she adds, if Morrissey is convicted of a felony. “At the end of the day, he could end up fighting the same fight.”