A Chattanooga man's sentence of life without parole Wednesday gave prosecutors their first conviction in the 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide.
Derek Morse will have to spend the rest of his life in prison because jurors said his crimes on April 9, 2014, constituted mass murder and especially heinous behavior.
Prosecutors said Morse went to a trailer home on Kellys Ferry Road with his friends Skyler Allen and Jacob Allison, and shot and killed Caleb Boozer, John Lang and Jon Morris as they tried to flee into the woods. Morse was angry that Morris and two other men tried to ambush him a few nights earlier over money.
"I did a couple of tours in 'Nam, and I've never seen anything like this," said Thomas Lang, John Lang's older brother, who watched Morse's seven-day trial. "They gave less thought to killing those men than we gave to the enemy."
All told, jurors deliberated about four hours Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before convicting Morse of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. But their work wasn't done. They had to decide whether Morse should receive a chance at parole on the three murder counts. Prosecutors never asked for the death penalty.
In Tennessee, someone with a life sentence is eligible for parole after serving 51 years, unless jurors specifically rule it out. Prosecutors Lance Pope and Cameron Williams said Morse didn't deserve ever to walk free again.
"Think back to the testimony," Pope said. "Jon Morris is shot eight times. John Lang is shot five times. Caleb Boozer is shot 15 times. They're all shot in the head. In addition to that, what did you hear? Jon Morris was disabled."
That checked off heinous crime, one of two factors prosecutors had to prove, Pope said. The other was mass murder, but that was simple: Mass murder is when three or more people die.
For more proof, prosecutors called family members to explain the emotional impact of the triple homicide.
Deb Boozer lost her only son and can't celebrate Christmas or Mother's Day like she used to. Molly Morris has to explain to her child that Uncle Jon is in heaven. And Jacob Lang was so consumed by rage at losing his father that he nearly destroyed his marriage.
"He was more about adventures and hiking," Jacob Lang said of his father. "Things like mortgages drove him insane."
Pope said many people rise from adversity and accomplish great things, prosecutors countered. But few people have a capacity for violence like Morse, he said, asking jurors not to reward Morse with a chance at parole.
Defense attorney Dan Ripper said he wasn't trying to justify his client's actions.
But Morse had a story, too.
A month after he was born, Morse's father left home and never had face-to-face interactions with his son. That left his mother, a severe alcoholic who verbally abused him, and later, a stepfather who never gave Morse any discipline or structure. Breakfast was a box of cereal with cockroaches inside, Morse's uncle, Derek Weil Morse, testified.
Morse often left home, looking for a safer place. He spent summers with his uncle and aunt and nearly was adopted by them. He tried to enlist in the military at age 17, but that fell through. He was 19 years old when the crime happened, Ripper reminded jurors.
In his final argument to jurors, Ripper said Pope was right about people's capacity for redemption.
"People come from those circumstances and do great things. But there are many, many, many people who don't overcome them," Ripper said.
People don't get to pick their parents or the circumstances they're thrust into, Ripper said. Morse wasn't given many chances. Could jurors give him this one?
Morse is next scheduled to appear Dec. 13.
He still must be sentenced on his attempted first-degree murder charge for shooting 16-year-old Matthew Callan five times that night. He could be sentenced to 15 to 60 years on that count.
Morse's co-defendants, Skyler and Allison, are awaiting trial and have court dates in Criminal Court next month.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.