Against the advice of his attorney, Joseph Eli Morrow, 59, formerly of Menlo Park, pleaded no contest today to second-degree murder in San Mateo County Superior Court for the 1991 killing of his wife.
Morrow is believed to have killed his wife Donna Morrow, 37, during an argument at their Menlo Park home Dec. 19, 1991, and then buried her body in a 10-foot hole on his 36-acre hillside property above Los Gatos. He was arrested in the Philippines in 2003.
"My feeling is that it would be better for him to proceed to trial," defense attorney Robert Courshon told San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Craig Parsons this morning. "Mr. Morrow ... has elected on his own to accept responsibility for his actions at this time," Courshon said.
Prosecutors today dropped the special circumstances allegation of murder for financial gain, but added seven new assault charges, two for the December 1991 attack and five for earlier domestic violence incidents in 1981, 1982, 1987, 1990 and May 1991.
Under the terms of the plea deal, Morrow faces 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Morrow, originally from San Mateo, had been president of a profitable Redwood City paper product supply company, and married Missouri-born Donna in 1979, but their relationship was marred by years of unreported violence, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
"It was symptomatic of a different day and age," Wagstaffe said, "when domestic violence was kept within the family."
According to Wagstaffe, Morrow's violent temper was "a secret known to the (family's) closest friends, perhaps, but not generally."
Wagstaffe believes Donna Morrow had just finalized her decision to get a divorce when Morrow murdered her. All four of the couple's children were in the home on the night she was killed, but only their 9-year-old daughter reported hearing her parents arguing from another room, Wagstaffe said.
No blood was found in the home, leading investigators to believe Donna had been strangled, Wagstaffe said.
According to Wagstaffe, Morrow did not report the murder to police and later claimed the couple simply had an argument, after which Donna left the house and disappeared. Morrow would not allow the family to even discuss their mother over Christmas, and afterward took the children skiing near Lake Tahoe, Wagstaffe said.
"All (Donna's) friends said, the thing that mattered to her more than anything in her life, were her four children," Wagstaffe said, and that "She never would have left them on Christmas."
Morrow, who is thought to have fled to the Philippines in 1993, was arrested in Manila in early 2003, according to Wagstaffe.
Donna Morrow's skeletal remains were unearthed on the Los Gatos property in September 2003 and Morrow was indicted by a criminal grand jury in November 2003.
According to Courshon, Morrow's decision to accept the plea deal came primarily because he wanted to avoid having his family, "particularly his daughters," Courshon said, testify in the trial.
A gray-haired, potbellied Morrow accepted the terms of the amended complaint against him in court this morning, though he appeared briefly uncertain when Parsons read the "with malice of forethought" portion of the second-degree murder charge. He finally entered the no-contest plea.
The trial in the nearly 16-year-old murder case had been delayed several times with defense appeals to replace Parsons as the trial judge because of alleged bias, and to have the case thrown out because of potentially exculpatory evidence allegedly not provided to the grand jury in 2003. All of the appeals were denied and jury selection was to begin this morning.
Wagstaffe expressed "a certain level of disappointment" that there would not be a trial, during which Morrow was expected to testify and be grilled by prosecutors, he said.
"This wasn't a close case," Wagstaffe said. "This man was going to get convicted of murder. This man does not like people getting in his face. He lived his life as a bully."
"I do think justice was done today," Wagstaffe said. "I think he will be locked up forever."
Morrow, who remains in custody on a no-bail status, will be sentenced on Oct. 24, for which more than a dozen of Donna's Morrow's family members are expected to fly in from the Midwest to speak, according to Wagstaffe.
Some of Morrow's children may attend to speak in their father's defense, Wagstaffe said.