RACINE — The case against a man charged with murder fell apart during a five-day trial. Credibility issues with the chief witness were brought to the surface, and the Racine Police Department was accused of performing a lackluster investigation.
That witness was shown to have lied repeatedly to law enforcement but was still never considered a suspect, despite possibly having had a motive for the murder.
The witness was also acquaintances with an investigator.
Joshua Morris, 32, was found not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide on Monday for the Sept. 2, 2018 shooting death of Lavelle Monroe, then 34 years old.
The defendant was convicted of the two additional charges: possession of a firearm by a felon and first-degree recklessly endangering safety with use of a dangerous weapon for firing a shot into the air.
The defense was able to weaken the state’s case by demonstrating there were actually two potential suspects in the case: Morris and Alexander Lease, both of whom were seen on surveillance video following Monroe into an alley.
However, when questioned on the stand, RPD Investigator Don Nuttall said he knew Lease personally, claimed Lease was “not the type” to commit murder, and therefore was never a suspect in the shooting even though Lease may have had a motive for the killing.
Surveillance video showed Monroe in a physical confrontation with Lease shortly before the shooting, potentially making Lease the only person of the two with any kind of motive, the defense argued, since there was no known motive for Morris to have wanted to kill Monroe, who he was friends with.
The gun used in the killing was never recovered.
RPD officers were dispatched to the 2000 block of Mead Street after someone reported hearing shots fired shortly before 1:00 a.m.
In the alley, they discovered Monroe with multiple gunshot wounds. He died from his injuries at Ascension All Saints Hospital.
Five days later, a warrant was issued for Morris, who fled the state and was not arrested until May 2019.
Lease’s story changed multiple times as the investigation continued, even though police said they never considered him a suspect.
When interviewed in the hours after the homicide, Lease said when the shots were fired, he headed to his car and didn’t see the shooting. However, a surveillance camera showed Lease following Morris and Monroe into the alley, which Lease later admitted to. He told Nuttall he saw Morris following Monroe, so he followed them both into the alley.
Lease claimed on the stand that he watched as Morris pulled a gun and shot Monroe, who stumbled forward and sort of hugged Morris, who then pushed him back and shot four more times.
When confronted about lying during the initial investigation, an emotional Lease allegedly told investigators during the taped interview that he lied because he was terrified “of being the next body in the alley.”
Lease lied again in a later interview, saying he was drunk and did not remember the evening.
Lease also claimed he was being threatened to keep him from testifying, even though the state provided no evidence of these threats.
There were other little lies, as well. Lease claimed he had a very short conversation with Morris after the murder, in which Morris claimed to be OK but was trying to put together some gas money to get out of town. However, records showed that the phone call actually lasted three minutes — much longer than Lease had claimed.
Lease also claimed to have panicked during the murder and ran away, but surveillance video showed that was not true.
In addition to the dishonest statements during the course of the investigation, Lease was shown to have a potential motive for the murder while there was no known motive for Morris.
As the defense noted, shortly before the murder, Monroe had a physical confrontation with Lease, slapping and punching him at least three times.
The witness attempted to downplay the confrontation. However, the surveillance video showed another partygoer had to intervene to stop the attack on Lease.
Witnesses and suspects
Despite lying to police and the possibility of a motive, investigators never considered Lease a suspect.
Under questioning, Nuttall told the jury that he had known Lease for many years, and “he wasn’t the type” to commit murder.
The two men met when Nuttall worked as a security guard at the high school Lease attended. Nuttall said their interactions at the time were limited to him telling Lease to “get to class.”
In the years since that time, Nuttall said he saw Lease around town, but the two did not socialize.
The taped interview in which Lease told investigators that he witnessed the murder of Monroe was played for the jury. The Racine County District Attorney’s Office used the video to demonstrate how emotional Lease was but also to demonstrate that he cooperated with the investigation.
But attorneys defending Morris alleged the video demonstrated the way in which Nuttall was feeding Lease information based on his investigation of the scene.
At one point, the investigator found an unspent bullet and casing on the ground near the building where the party was held. He surmised that Morris racked his gun at the scene and then shot the gun at the ground.
However, when he told his version of events, Lease never said anything about Morris racking the gun or shooting it. It was Nuttall gave him that information. The next time Lease recounted events, he included the racking of the gun and the shooting in the narrative.
Nuttall said he was not leading the witness. He was refreshing his memory.
As for all the lies, Nuttall claimed the witness was just trying to minimize his role in the murder.
One gun seen
Nuttall insisted there was more evidence than just the eyewitness testimony.
He noted that a witness saw Morris with a gun, standing on a corner near the alley where Monroe was shot. The witness testified that Morris pointed it toward the sky and shot off a round.
It was for this action that Morris was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and reckless endangerment.
Morris being seen with a gun that night was also used as evidence by the prosecution in accusing him with murder.
Assistant Racine County District Attorney Diane Donohoo told the jurors that trials were about evidence, and they should not speculate on what possible evidence that was never recovered may exist. She then told them there was one gun and one shooter — referencing Morris; whether a second gun was at the scene was to be left unconsidered by the jury.
A sentencing hearing for Morris is set for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 4, court records show.
COVID-19 closed Madison bars. A UW-Madison student recreated them on Minecraft