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RACINE — A man acquitted of murder but convicted of lesser charges is appealing his case on allegations the Racine County DA’s Office muddled the accusations – and defense counsel failed to take corrective actions.

The defendant is also seeking a new sentencing on the grounds the judge continued to the sentencing portion of the case – even though an employee of the court delivered the victim impact statement.

Joshua Morris, 34, was found not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, as party to a crime, for the 2018 shooting death of Lavelle Monroe, who was 34 years old.

However, he was convicted of the additional charges of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and first-degree recklessly endangering safety, as party to a crime, with use of a deadly weapon.

He was sentenced to 17.5 years in prison – the maximum sentence possible for the two charges.

Case history

The Racine Police Department was dispatched to the 2000 block of Howe Street on Sept. 2, 2018, shortly before 1 a.m. on the report that shots were fired and there was a man down.

They found Monroe in an alley behind a Howe Street business. He had been shot three times and would later die at Ascension All Saints Hospital.

During the investigation, detectives learned there was a birthday party earlier in the evening. After the party, there was a physical altercation between the victim and an attendee, Alex Lease.

Sometime later, Monroe, Lease, and Morris were seen walking into an alley. Only two men walked out: Morris and Lease.

Lease was the first person interviewed by the RPD. He denied being in the alley at the time of the shooting, but after being confronted with surveillance video, he admitted he was there but alleged Morris was the shooter.

Lease would go on to be the state’s primary witness at the June 2021 trial. However, the defense presented evidence Lease had lied to the police and his statements were inconsistent with video evidence. Further, the defense had video that appeared to show investigators planting information with Lease.

The jury brought back an acquittal on the murder charge. However, the jury did find Morris guilty of the two lesser charges: possession of a firearm by a felon and first-degree recklessly endangering safety.

Prosecutor may have confused the jury with closing remarks

The state charged Morris with homicide for the fatal shot and first-degree recklessly endangering safety for the two non-fatal shots.

At the heart of the appeal is this question: how did the jury determine there was insufficient evidence to convict Morris of the fatal shot but sufficient evidence to convict him of the non-fatal shots?

Philip Brehm, a Janesville attorney, filed the appeal.

Brehm argued the jury was confused by Assistant DA Diane Donohoo’s closing statement, which appeared to reference an earlier incident where Morris allegedly fired a shot into the air.

Donohoo told the jury, “And just for a moment touching on count three, any gunshot anywhere near a person, in this case Lavelle Monroe, or anyone, a gunshot, whether it’s in the air or to the ground, shooting guns in the proximity of people is reckless behavior.”

However, Morris was not charged for allegedly firing a shot into the air.

“There is no way to determine what act by defendant Morris constituted reckless endangerment in the eyes of the jury,” Brehm argued in documents filed with the court.

He continued, “The ambiguity in the charge would have allowed some jurors to find the defendant guilty for the shot allegedly fired into the air in the street while other jurors may have found guilt based on the shot in the alley.”

Brehm argued the defense failed to object to Donohoo’s statement or to seek corrective action. Due to this lack of action by the defendant’s attorneys, the defense is seeking a new trial.

Hearing on the appeal

Judge Wynne Laufenberg presided over the first appeal hearing on June 22.

Grant Henderson, formerly of the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office, was the only person to testify at the appeal hearing. He represented Morris at trial, along with Alexander Kostal.

He agreed from the stand the prosecutor’s closing statements suggested Morris was charged for shooting into the air, but he could not remember if he considered objecting.

When asked if the statement created ambiguity for the jury, he responded, “Yes, I would think so.”

Henderson said he did not know what conduct Morris was convicted of: the shot in the air or the non-fatal shots to the victim.

Donohoo, representing the Racine County DA’s Office, was given the opportunity to question the witness.

She asked if it occurred to Henderson to ask a clarifying question about the location of the recklessly endangering behavior, which would have allowed the issue to be addressed during instructions to the jury.

Henderson agreed that would have taken care of the issue.

A new sentencing hearing

The appeal also includes an alternative request for a new sentencing hearing based on the fact Judge Laufenberg allowed a victim impact statement from a relative of the victim who was also a bailiff for the court.

The sentencing hearing was held on Oct. 4, 2021.

During the hearing, Laufenberg put on the record she worked with the aunt of the victim for more than 30 years, as had the other judges in the Racine County Circuit Court.

The defense objected to the aunt addressing the court.

Donohoo argued Monroe’s aunt should be allowed to address the fact he was the victim of reckless endangerment, and Laufenberg allowed Monroe’s aunt to speak.

However, Monroe’s aunt used her victim impact speech to accuse the defendant of the murder over and over again, the charge he was acquitted of, and Laufenberg allowed it.

Monroe’s aunt told the court, “On Sept. 2, 2018, that same loving and caring young man, with a family and real friends, had his life taken away in a cruel, cold and calculated act of murder committed by cowards, Joshua Morris and his family and associates.”

She continued, “As he sits here today hoping for compassion and mercy from the court, he deserves nothing short of contempt and never to be free to walk the streets again. No consideration, moderation, or forgiveness. No mercy.”

She repeatedly asked the court to show no mercy.

She concluded, “Joshua Morris deserves the full extent of the law, and I’m asking you, Judge, and the courts to please give this man what he deserves. He does not deserve to walk free among anybody ever again.”

The appeal argues the judge should have recused herself to avoid the appearance of bias. The issue of the new sentencing was not addressed during the first hearing on June 22.

The appeal hearing will resume on Aug. 8.

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