Prosecutors widen ring of evidence in 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide trial

Prosecutors widen ring of evidence in 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide trial

September 22nd, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Defendant Derek Morse looks back as Judge Steelman introduces his bailiff to prospective jurors for the 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide trial Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Prosecutors pushed past a flip-flopping witness Thursday, widening their ring of evidence against a 23-year-old man facing murder charges in the 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide.

Defense attorney Dan Ripper has argued that his client, Derek Morse, was arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder because a neighbor who didn't witness the slayings of Caleb Boozer, John Lang and Jon Morris told authorities that Morse was involved.

But Hamilton County authorities used surveillance footage, bullet casings and community members who witnessed other violent acts to justify his arrest, and prosecutors put some of that evidence on display on the third day of Morse's trial in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

First, they had to question Brandon Jackson, a witness who lived with Jon Morris' sister and her family in a Lookout Valley trailer park near the Kellys Ferry Road crime scene.

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Assistant district attorney Cameron Williams asked Jackson a crucial question: Did he remember Morse getting out of a black car and heading toward the group of men he allegedly was about to shoot to death?

That's what Jackson testified to in a 2014 hearing. A "yes" would have bolstered the state's proof that Morse was one of two shooters that night.

But Jackson said Thursday he didn't remember seeing Morse with a gun.

"That's not what you saw?" Williams asked, pausing. "OK, did you ever see anybody get out of the vehicle?"

"No," Jackson replied.

Williams did extract a full account from Jackson of an April 4 incident prosecutors believe motivated the triple slaying.

Jackson explained that he, Morris and a third friend called Morse to the Food Lion parking lot for a drug deal. They really planned to beat Morse over $20 he owed, but Morse caught onto the scheme when he saw Jackson and his friend creeping up behind his car.

The groups exchanged gunfire, then briefly raced down Browns Ferry Road. The chase ended when Jackson crashed into a ditch at about 75 mph.

Prosecutors say Morse went to a Kellys Ferry Road motor home five days later with his friend, Skyler Allen, and opened fire on the group, killing everyone except Matthew Callan, then 16. A third acquaintance, Jacob Allison, drove them to and from the scene, prosecutors say.

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Morse, Allison and Allen drove about 15 minutes to Allison's grandmother's house in Trenton, Ga., arriving at 7:15 p.m., said Henry Ritter, an investigator with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Prosecutors played surveillance footage to construct a timeline from there: The men traveled to a gas station, a nearby Americas Best Value Inn and a Subway.

Ripper said there was a problem with the footage: Because the surveillance footage time signatures didn't line up, Morse was at the hotel and Subway at the same time.

"What investigation did you do to figure out Mr. Morse was in two places at the same time?" he asked Ritter.

"I didn't catch that until today, sir," Ritter said.

A few people at the crime scene pointed to Morse as the shooter, Ritter said, justifying an arrest warrant. Hamilton County deputies also launched a "be-on-the-lookout" call for Morse's black car, spotting it the next day in the hotel parking lot with a .22-caliber shell casing near the windshield wiper. That caliber matched some of the casings on scene, prosecutors said.

Deputies also recovered some of Morse's possessions from a home on Elder Mountain Road where authorities believed he was holed up. Among them: a white T-shirt with writing, a wallet and a pair of khaki shorts.

But that, Ripper said, was another issue.

"You've been here the whole trial," he said to Ritter. "No witness has described him as wearing those clothes. They've all described him as wearing dark clothes, dark trousers."

The trial continues today at 10:45 a.m. in Hamilton County Criminal Court before Judge Barry Steelman.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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