Legal papers sent this week allege prosecutors purposefully kept the identity of a sex offender tied to evidence in a Chaffee County killing from murder suspect Barry Morphew’s defense team.
The move comes after a lengthy evidence hearing led to a judge ruling Morphew should stand trial in the death of his wife, Suzanne Morphew, who was reported missing on Mother's Day, 2020. The attorneys allege alleges deputies and prosecutors withheld the identity of a person tied to DNA found on the glovebox of Suzanne Morphew’s Ranger Rover.
A national database of DNA samples taken from inmates showed the DNA was linked to a sex offender who now lives in Arizona, according to the notice of intent to sue filed by the law firm of Fisher and Byrialsen based out of Denver and New York City.
The documents contend law enforcement and prosecutors could face civil liability for defamation and false arrest under new Colorado laws that in some cases lift legal shields that protect police from lawsuits.
Former Adams County prosecutor Bob Grant called the legal move unusual, but said it could grow more common as a tool to punish alleged police misconduct.
“I think we’ll see more and more of this,” Grant said. “I think they want to chill the effectiveness of law enforcement.”
In the notice, Morphew listed 26 investigators he intends to sue in “both their individual and official capacities.” The list includes Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze, District Attorney Linda Stanley and agents from the FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation. The document contends police didn't chase the DNA lead and looks for other possible killers before focusing on Morphew.
Stanley and Spezze declined comment Tuesday.
Morphew, 53, is set for a trial next year in the disappearance and death of his 49-year-old wife from their home west of Monarch Pass.
Morphew was arrested May 5 on suspicion of murder almost a year after his wife’s disappearance. He was released on bail Sept. 20.
The documents filed by Morphew allege new information regarding male DNA found in the Range Rover, saying it was a possible match to serial sex offender in Arizona.
Morphew’s civil attorneys say investigators knew the man’s identity as early as Aug. 2, a week before the evidence hearing in the murder case. The 10-page document says prosecutors waited until Morphew was ordered to trial before they released it to his defense team. In doing this, Morphew's attorneys contend prosecutors “conspired to commit a fraud upon the court by withholding exculpatory evidence.”
The DNA issue did come up during Morphew's August evidence hearing. Colorado Bureau of Investigations agent Joe Cahill told Morphew attorney Iris Eytan that the DNA on the glove box is a partial profile.
Investigators collected several DNA samples amid a frantic search for Suzanne Morphew. Other unknown male DNA was also found on the grips of Suzanne Morphew’s bicycle, on her bike helmet and on sheets found in the Morphew’s dryer. None of these DNA profiles matched the DNA on on the glovebox.
“It’s Ramsey all over again,” said Grant, who was one of several prosecutors who gave advice in the unsolved 1996 killing of the JonBenet Ramsey. “The prosecution will have to contend with the DNA. It makes this case really tough because this DNA found on the glovebox represents a somewhat credible suspect.”
One issue in the Ramsey case centers on unidentified DNA found on her clothing.
Denver criminal defense attorney Ryan Brackley, who was a prosecutor in Denver and Boulder, said in the Morphew case, prosecutors will need legwork to overcome the DNA from the glovebox. To keep the focus on Morphew, they'll need an alibi for the man tied to the glovebox.
“If such a DNA profile was found in a missing woman’s car, and that DNA profile belongs to a sex offender, the lack of an explanation for how that profile got into the car of the missing woman would certainly provide a basis for a reasonable doubt that someone else committed the crime," Brackley said.
Morphew also has DNA issues to face.
“We’ve talked about where Barry’s DNA was not,” prosecutor Mark Hurlbert argued on the final day of the pevidence.
He countered that the defandant's genetic fingerprints were found in sveral places cruic to prosecution theories including his wife’s bicycle seat and on the driver's seat and door of the Range Rover.
During the August hearing, defense attorneys argued that prosecutors can't prove Suzanne Morphew is dead, much less that her husband killed her. Her body hasn't been found.