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Judge denies motions to suppress evidence in Charles City baby death case

By Bob Steenson,

A Floyd County District Court judge has denied several motions to suppress evidence in the case of a Charles City man accused of murder in the death of his infant son.

Judge James Drew made the ruling Wednesday after a hearing had been held in October in the case of Shane Michael Morris, age 26, who was charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment resulting in death, after the death of his 3½-month-old son on Aug. 4, 2019.

Judge denies motions to suppress evidence in Charles City baby death case
Shane Michael Morris

On Tuesday, Judge Drew postponed the trial in the case until March 2, 2021, because of current Iowa court restrictions against holding trials because of COVID-19.

Morris’s attorney, Judith O’Donohoe of Charles City, filed several motions between June and September to suppress various parts of the state’s case, including statements Morris made to law enforcement agents, photographs and video taken, and other evidence.

Drew addressed each part of the motions individually in his ruling this week.

O’Donohoe argued that statements made to agents of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) by Morris at a Mayo Clinic hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, where his son had been taken for treatment, and where he later died, should be suppressed because Morris had not been read his Miranda rights or advised that he had a right to not talk with authorities.

Drew ruled that Morris was not “in custody” at the time of the questioning and therefore the Miranda rights warning requirement was not in effect.

Drew noted that the DCI agent “did not use coercive language to summon the defendant. The interview was conducted in a hospital setting and the defendant was already in the building prior to the agents’ arrival. The door of the conference room was unlocked, and the defendant was told more than once that he was free to leave if he chose to.”

O’Donohoe also argued that those statements were not made voluntarily.

Drew said in his ruling, “Neither the environment nor method of questioning was coercive or intimidating. The defendant was coherent throughout the interview and his answers indicate he understood the questions that were being asked.

“It does not appear that fatigue or hunger had any significant effect on the defendant’s decision-making abilities. He continually defended himself and denied his guilt throughout the interview. There is nothing in the recording of the interview to suggest the defendant’s will was overborne by the agent,” the judge wrote.

O’Donohue also argued that a video and photographs of Morris taken by the agent at the hospital should be suppressed, but Drew ruled that Morris has consented to being photographed.

Another motion sought to suppress the evidence obtained in a search of Morris’ residence on Aug. 4, arguing that the search warrant lacked probable cause.

Drew noted that the affidavit seeking the warrant included information from a DCI agent, from an officer of the Iowa Department of Human Services, medical information from a Mayo Clinic doctor as well as details of the DCI agent’s interviews of Morris.

“The information presented in the affidavit, taken as a whole, is sufficient to establish that a crime may have been committed and evidence of the crime might be located in the defendant’s residence,” Drew wrote.

Another motion argued that an article of clothing given to a DCI agent by the baby’s mother was obtained illegally, and that further questioning and videotaping of Morris at their home was not voluntary.

Drew again ruled that the clothing had been given up voluntarily by someone who had the authority to do so, and that Morris “readily complied” with a request by the DCI agent that he act out what Morris had said had happened in the home before the baby started to be in distress.

The district court judge also ruled that information downloaded from Morris’ Facebook account using information obtained in the initial interview was legally obtained, because Morris had consented to that interview.

He ruled that a search warrant for Morris’ cellphone and a subpoena for Morris’ Google records also had probable cause.

O’Donohoe had also moved that medical information regarding the boy should be suppressed because it was protected by patient-physician privilege and the medical records were not properly subpoenaed.

Drew ruled that the state “was conducting a legitimate child abuse investigation” and Iowa law provides an exception to patient-physician privilege in that regard.

“To limit evidence to testimony only and not include medical records would make child abuse investigations practically meaningless,” he wrote.

Morris is charged with being responsible for the death of his 3½-month-old son, by causing “an act which caused the child to be transported to the Floyd County Medical Center in Charles City” on Aug. 3, 2019, then to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where he died the next day as the result of injuries.

An autopsy performed at the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office concluded the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and the manner of death was homicide.

Court records allege that Morris first said he didn’t know what had happened to the boy to cause him to require medical treatment.

Later, the records allege, Morris said the boy had hit his head on a kitchen counter when Morris had tripped while holding him, and that the two of them had fallen to the floor. The records allege that Morris said he didn’t offer that explanation initially because he was afraid people would think it was his fault.