News

RUBY MORRIS' BIZARRE LAST RIDE

The courtroom is hushed. Earl Morris swallows hard. He is playing to a small audience. Its numbers are few, but they are totally mesmerized.

If Morris were a veteran actor, this tiny crowd of spectators might be discouraging.

It might even tempt him to deliver his lines too swiftly. He might take the scene too lightly, saving a bigger emotional commitment for another day and a more important audience.

A hidden camera is filming the entire trial through a window in the rear of the courtroom for an upcoming segment of a television show. Morris cannot see the camera. It has no effect on him.

At any rate, Morris is not an actor. And, at 53, he never will face a more important audience in his life.

Morris is on trial for murdering his wife.
This jury, which stares at him unwaveringly and hangs upon his every word, holds Morris' fate in its hands.

Prosecutors charge that Morris fired two shots into the head of Ruby, his wife of 30 years, in their Cave Creek home on the night of June 3, 1989.

They further claim Morris attempted to cover up the crime.
They say he drove her body to San Diego, where he placed it in the family boat, which he then set on fire.

The boat sank. Ruby's body has never been found. It is believed to be entombed in the burned-out hulk of the boat resting deep in the Pacific Ocean.

Morris' defense is that Ruby committed suicide and he buried her at sea to avoid scandal.

This is Morris' second day on the witness stand. As he continues to testify, it becomes plain that he understands, instinctively, a few things about a theatrical performance.

A former Marine pilot, the six-foot-tall Morris dresses neatly, has good posture and a sense of timing. His taste in some areas is questionable. His jet-black toupee, for example, is much too obvious. No director would hire a leading man with a hairpiece so apparent.

On the witness stand, Morris often hesitates briefly before answering. This is effective. It never fails to bring the jurors into a forward lean, awaiting his answers.

Tom Henze, Morris' lawyer, is the most theatrically gifted defense lawyer in the state. Each move Henze makes in a courtroom seems natural and unforced, but they are all planned and calculated for effect.

Henze has style. He never blusters. He never allows himself to show surprise or anger.

And no lawyer is better at leading a defense witness to spin a sympathetic yarn about a crime than Tom Henze.

Henze comes across to the jury like a good listener, a man of sensitivity. His style is reminiscent of Atticus Finch in the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird. Henze, who dresses like an Ivy Leaguer, doesn't resemble Gregory Peck, who played the role in the film, but he's a better lawyer and more believable.

"Mr. Morris," Henze asks, "how many guns did you own in 1989?" Morris says, "Approximately 20 or 30. But most all of them were collector's items.

"I had a .45-caliber automatic in the bedroom and a .22-caliber pistol hid high on a dresser in the bathroom. We worried about protection because we lived in the last house on a dead-end road." "Henze leads Morris through a recitation of his marital troubles. The cause in recent years was Morris' long-running affair with Ruby's sister Peggy.

Morris was financially well-off. He had a big house and lots of cars and plenty of disposable cash. His income-tax business was a success. He estimated his net worth at approximately $1 million.

Ruby became convinced that every time Morris went out of town he was cheating on her with her sister, who lived in Monroe, Louisiana. Most of the time she was right.

"I was evasive," Morris admitted. "I lied to her. I was deceitful." Their marriage was on the rocks. Ruby had threatened to get a divorce and take most of Morris' money. Once, she threatened to shoot him.

In a final confrontation, the couple argued about a trip Morris planned to take to California the next week to see their daughter.

"Was your last discussion heated?" Henze asked.
"No." "How did it end?" "When I was leaving, I turned around and said, `I guess you are never gonna know where I am next week and I'm not gonna know where you are, either.' Then I walked out and closed the door."
Those were the last words Morris said to his wife, and his version is the only one available.

As he tells of the parting, Morris' throat catches. He adjusts his glasses. He sniffles once or twice.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick