Tearful relatives testify in Joe Morrow murder sentencing
Boxes of tissues were in big demand in Judge Craig Parsons' courtroom on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the gut-wrenching pre-sentencing hearing of confessed murderer Joseph Morrow.
Mr. Morrow, 59, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder on Sept. 11 in the killing of his wife Donna Morrow, 37, during an argument at their Menlo Park home on Dec. 19, 1991.
Twenty-one people testified at the all-day hearing, including Ms. Morrow's family from Missouri and Mr. Morrow's three grown daughters, who tearfully testified that they had forgiven their father for killing their mother and want to see him paroled.
"Us kids have gone through hell for the past 16 years," said Carrie Morrow, adding that her brother, Joe Jr., wasn't present because he's in jail.
"My dad made a mistake and he's sorry. The best day of my life will be when he gets out (of prison)," she said. "I haven't had my mom in my life since I was 6, and I need my dad."
Mr. Morrow fled the country sometime in 1993, although he kept in contact with his children. He was arrested in the Philippines and extradited to the United States in January 2003.
In September of that year, using information from Mr. Morrow's handyman, police located Donna Morrow's skeletal remains, wrapped in plastic, rolled into a carpet and buried nearly 10 feet deep. The cause of death couldn't be determined.
"It's hard to understand (why) we keep in contact with him and still love him, but unless you've been in our position, it's not for you to judge," said Mr. Morrow's oldest daughter, Lisa.
Although Mr. Morrow's sentence of 25 years to life in prison was mostly a forgone conclusion, thanks to the plea deal he struck with prosecutors, testimony from the hearing will be considered when Mr. Morrow becomes eligible for parole in 2024, said prosecutor Steve Wagstaffe, the chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County.
It also gave Ms. Morrow's loved ones a chance to confront Mr. Morrow and remember the woman who they said was so dedicated to her four children that she delayed leaving an abusive marriage so they could have a happy Christmas.
When Donna's family in Missouri placed their tradition call to her on Christmas day in 1991, Mr. Morrow told them his wife had walked out on him and the kids a few days earlier, and he didn't know where she'd gone. None of Ms. Morrow's relatives believed him, family members said.
"We all knew that Donna would not leave her children. We all knew that something terrible had happened," said her sister Linda Hayes.
Her brother Steve Barrett broke down as he recalled a childhood promise to his little sister during a thunderstorm. "I told her not to be scared because I'd never let anything hurt her," he said. "My grandmother always called me Donna's guardian angel and knight in shining armor."
He said he blamed himself for not convincing Donna to leave her husband sooner. "If I'd followed my gut instinct and called her, maybe she'd be with us today."
Mr. Morrow's ex-wife Sandy Lawson testified about her 2-1/2 year marriage, saying an abusive Mr. Morrow tried to strangle her and threatened to have her killed if she attempted to get any money from him in a divorce settlement.
Family and friends testified to Ms. Morrow's unswerving devotion to her children and to the abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her husband.
Mr. Morrow's prison sentence includes a 15-year sentence for killing Donna and an additional 10 years for seven counts of domestic violence against her.
Mr. Morrow's younger sister Dorothy Morrow said she's been terrified of her brother all her life. She said Mr. Morrow was physically abused by their father and sexually abused by their mother, and that her brother exploited their 11-year age difference to physically and sexually abuse her throughout her childhood.
"He's a master manipulator with a genius IQ and he cannot be trusted," she said. "I love him and have forgiven him for the things he's done to me, but he is so damaged that I'll only feel safe if he remains incarcerated for life."
At the end of the hearing, Mr. Morrow denied his sister's allegations of abuse before reading a statement of apology.
"I'm very, very sorry for my unacceptable behavior and I apologize to everyone," said Mr. Morrow, turning to face his wife's family. "While I do not deserve it, I ask for forgiveness. I offer no excuse. I have nothing bad to say about my wife. She was a very nice lady."
Joan Lucas, Mr. Morrow's older sister, testified that her brother should be paroled when he's eligible, for the sake of his children. "He loves them, he loves them with all his heart and they love him. They need hope. They need their father," she said.
Mr. Wagstaffe said Mr. Morrow had his freedom for nearly 12 years after killing his wife, when he fled the country rather than serve prison time on a felony grand theft conviction related to his office supply business. During that time, Mr. Morrow toured Europe and Asia, and then settled in the Philippines, where he lived under an assumed name, Mr. Wagstaffe said.
"He should finish his days in prison so there are no more Sandy Lawsons and no more Donna Morrows," Mr. Wagstaffe said.