This article contains graphic descriptions.
In a ruling last week, Texas’ highest criminal appeals court declined to hear the appeal of a 26-year-old Weatherford man who beat and choked his 6-month-old daughter because he “wanted to go to sleep.”
“This was an awful case we tried in April, 2016 in which a little girl named Shelbie had her entire future shattered in an instant by her own father, Robert Brandon Morris” said Assistant District Attorney Jeff Swain in a release. “Shelbie was a normally developing baby until one day, when Mr. Morris wanted to sleep and couldn’t get her to stop crying, he choked her and violently slammed her onto a bed.
Swain , who tried the case for the prosecution said as a result, Shelbie is now blind and suffers what neurologists with Cook Children’s Hospital described as a devastated brain.
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“She will suffer from profound developmental issues for the rest of her life,” Swain added.
In June, the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth heard and denied Morris’ appeal. In that ruling, they rejected his contention that 43rd District Judge Craig Towson should have stricken a potential juror who was vacillating on whether he could consider the entire range of punishment. The court also overruled Morris’ claim that prosecutors inappropriately commented on his decision not to testify during closing argument. Viewed in context, the prosecutor’s argument was actually referring to a statement that Morris gave to Weatherford Police detectives.
“There was no error in the trial court’s judgment,” the appeals court concluded in its ruling.
“Although he could appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision likely ends Mr. Morris’ appellate process, affirming his conviction and life sentence,” Swain said. “That means that the jury’s verdict will stand and Mr. Morris will not be eligible for parole until 2045.”
Looking back, 2016
Authorities responded to a 911 call on Jan. 14, 2015, at the Super Value Inn in Weatherford where Morris and his girlfriend, Dawn Briggs — the child’s mother — were living.
Briggs was at work when Morris called her, saying something was wrong with the little girl. Briggs rushed to the motel where she found their daughter in distress and told Morris to call 911.
The girl had been severely beaten and choked, authorities said. She was taken to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, where Morris was arrested after doctor’s determined the injuries had been inflicted.
“When [Dawn] said goodbye to her 6-month-old baby — a happy baby, a healthy baby — the next time she saw her it wouldn’t be the same,” Parker County Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Catania said in her opening statements. “This is a story about a little girl that before Jan. 14 could see like a normal child, but after that day, she had such massive bleeding in her eyes, and such trauma in her optic nerves, that doctors thought she would be legally blind. But, by the grace of God, she just recently began seeing some light.”
Catania said a home health nurse spends about 50 hours a week with the girl, who also sees a physical therapist, speech therapist and a nutritionist.
During the punishment phase, lead prosecutor Jeff Swain asked Briggs if Morris was a violent person.
Briggs, visibly emotional, said that when Morris was drinking he would often become violent and use “terribly profane” language toward her.
On the day the little girl was injured, she testified that Morris told her that the little girl had fallen and hit her head on the end table.
“I have nightmares because of this, and I relive it everyday,” Briggs said, crying.
The prosecution introduced a 911 recording, as well as a photograph of the little girl when she was at Cook Children’s. Morris showed little to no emotion as the 911 tape was played.
Dr. David Donahue, a neurosurgeon who worked with the little girl while the child was hospitalized for 37 days, testified that it was “remarkable” that she was alive.
Dr. Jamye Coffman also treated the girl and testified that the brain damage and other symptoms that cascaded from the beating are a “life sentence” for the child.
Nicole Lee, the child’s home health nurse, testified that she and the therapy staff believe that the 22-month-old child is at the developmental level of an 8-month-old.
Weatherford police detective Brett Stagner described his interview with Morris as “disturbing.”
Stagner said that when asked why he choked the child, Morris said he was upset because he “wanted to go to sleep.” Morris also admitted that he masturbated while watching movie scenes where women were being strangled and that he choked animals as a child.
“Too many children and families still suffer in silence and fear,” Judge Craig Towson read in his closing statement. “It is my hope your conviction brings a sense of justice to [the] family. Until our community has established safe environments for our children, caring for those children that have been abused and eliminating child abuse entirely, our work as a community is not finished.”
Towson said that children are the community's “most precious resource.”
“A father is a daughter's hero, her protector,” Towson said. “I can think of no greater betrayal than a father that abuses his own daughter. Any parent, or decent person, who has seen and heard the evidence here, will experience shock, disbelief, revulsion and anger. There is no excuse for your behavior.”
Towson told Morris the “sin is yours, the crime is yours and now the punishment is yours.”
Some material contained from Star-Telegram archives.
Lance Winter: 817-390-7274
REPORT CHILD ABUSE
Anyone aware of child abuse and neglect should call 1-800-252-5400 or go to texasabusehotline.org.