It's still unclear whether suspect will testify in Lookout Valley triple homicide trial

It's still unclear whether suspect will testify in Lookout Valley triple homicide trial

September 26th, 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.

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Prosecutors on Monday rested their case against a 23-year-old on trial for murder in the 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide.

But they spent most of the afternoon discussing a pair of questions: Would Derek Morse testify? And, if so, could prosecutors ask him about pictures of the alleged murder weapons that authorities downloaded from his cellphone?

Absolutely not, said Morse's defense attorney, Dan Ripper.

The state had Morse's cellphone for more than three years, but prosecutors only turned the photos over a day before trial, Ripper said.

Judge Barry A. Steelman talks to prospective jurors for the Lookout Valley trial involving defendant Derek Morse on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.

Judge Barry A. Steelman talks to prospective jurors...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

"If I get this one month ago, I can have a technical analysis done and figure out if that's an image received or taken; I don't have any way in the world to do that now," Ripper said. "And I didn't have any way in the world to do that Monday when I received it.

"The danger of a prejudice that comes from these pictures, even without having the ability to explain it properly, is so enormous."

Prosecutors said they got a search warrant to comb Morse's cellphone on Sept. 18, shortly after Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies brought over several pieces of evidence. As soon as they downloaded the photos, they provided them to Ripper. Prosecutors have a constitutional duty to share evidence, but the investigating law enforcement agency collects and maintains it for them.

Prosecutors only want to ask Morse about the photos if he denies knowing about the April 9, 2014, slayings of Caleb Boozer, John Lang and Jon Morris, Executive Assistant District Attorney Lance Pope said. They believe Morse and his friend, Skyler Allen, opened fire on a group of men outside their RV lot on Kellys Ferry Road, motivated by a violent drug set-up five days earlier at a Food Lion.

True to their promise, prosecutors didn't introduce the cellphone evidence during the last five days they've tried Morse in Hamilton County Criminal Court. They instead showed the alleged murder weapons that authorities recovered from a section of woods along Interstate 24. Morse's DNA was not on those guns, but prosecutors said the .22-caliber bullets that deputies found on his car had been fired from them.

Prosecutors said Morse bought one of the guns, a Ruger .22-caliber rifle, days before the homicide from a man in Rossville. Many of the photos have time stamps in earlier April. One shows Allen, who is awaiting trial, firing one of the guns near a picnic table.

Ultimately, Judge Barry Steelman limited what the state could probe. He said prosecutors could show the gun photos if Morse denied being in possession of them. But they could not get into when Morse received, uploaded or allegedly took the photos, Steelman said.

After all, no one could verify that Morse took them.

"Maybe they were screenshoted, maybe they were sent from someone else," Steelman said.

The judge told jurors to return at 1:30 p.m. today, giving Ripper the rest of Monday afternoon to discuss the photos with his client.

It's unclear whether Morse will testify.

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