Over the past year, Portsmouth prosecutor Matthew Morris has had his law license suspended three times, been found in contempt for twice walking into a courthouse with a gun in his briefcase, and was barred from appearing in criminal cases in Virginia Beach after showing up hours late for a hearing and making troubling statements to the judge.
The actions that led to the various disciplinary actions against Morris occurred before he was hired by the Portsmouth commonwealth’s attorney’s office, and the first two suspensions of his law license were short and for mundane reasons, like not paying his Virginia State Bar dues and failing to meet a requirement for continuing legal education.
The third case, however, was more serious. It involved sending a series of threatening texts to a former client, according to bar documents. The suspension in that instance was for six months and is set to begin April 24.
And while the second suspension was only for unpaid bar dues, Morris had not seen the notice informing him of the action and continued to handle dozens of cases at the Portsmouth courthouse over a four-week period before he became aware of what had happened, paid the dues and late fees, and got his license reinstated, the documents say.
Morris was working as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for the city of Portsmouth at the time, having been hired by Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales a couple months before. He appeared in 82 cases between Oct. 12 and Nov. 9, which was the time period his license was suspended, the documents said.
Yet despite all that — and his upcoming six-month suspension — Morris continues to be employed as a prosecutor for the city.
“I am fully aware of the allegations he is facing,” Morales wrote in a March 21 character reference letter sent to the bar while he was considering the action against Morris for the texts to his former client. “Mr. Morris has been employed with our office for about seven (7) months now and I could not be more pleased with my decision to hire him.”
The Virginian-Pilot sent an email Thursday to Morales and spokeswoman Tamara Shewmake seeking comment from Morris, as well as answers to several questions surrounding his employment, including the status of cases he handled while under suspension last year and what his duties will be during his upcoming suspensions.
The office respondents with a one-sentence statement: “In the matter of any potential irregularities, this office remains committed to participating with any corrective process should it become necessary or desired by impacted parties.”
According to a website for his former law practice, Morris graduated in the top 10% of his class at Regent University School of Law in 2012 and was licensed to practice law in Virginia that same year. He worked as a public defender in Portsmouth for a couple of years before opening his own practice in Virginia Beach, focusing mostly on criminal defense, DUI and traffic cases, the website said.
Among the best known cases he handled as a defense attorney was one involving hired hitman Richard Stoner. Stoner was contracted to kill a Virginia Beach woman in 2004 but ended up also killing her 7-year-old son and seriously wounding her brother before setting their family’s home on fire. The case remained cold until 2018.
Morris’ first known disciplinary incident occurred in March 2022. He was ordered to appear at a show cause hearing in Virginia Beach Circuit Court after courthouse security officers found a gun in his briefcase on two separate occasions, according to bar documents. Morris told Circuit Judge Les Lilley both incidents were accidents and Lilley found him in civil contempt, the documents said. The documents didn’t indicate whether a fine or other punishment was issued.
That same month, his law license was suspended for a week for failing to comply with a requirement to undergo continuing legal education.
Also in March 2022, Virginia Beach Circuit Judge Stephen Mahan banned Morris from representing clients in criminal cases there after he showed up hours late to a court hearing and made troubling statements about the reason for his tardiness and mistakes he had made in his client’s case.
Morris told Mahan he’d slept through his alarm and that it wasn’t the first time it had happened, according to bar documents. He said he was concerned he had a “medical issue” or was “just bordering on being unfit to be an attorney.” As for the case he was supposed to be in court for that day, Morris told Mahan he needed to withdraw from it because he was “unaware of pertinent statutes and laws” and had failed to inform his client about important matters in the case.
The incident with the text messages occurred last August and involved a former client Morris suspected of filing a complaint against him to the state bar.
In the often rambling and sometimes profanity-filled messages sent over a two-day period, Morris called the man a “snitch” who “deserved death” and threatened to “hunt” him down, the bar documents said. He warned the man that he had “represented a lot of really bad people over the past decade” who “still owe me favors” and that he wasn’t “a lawyer anymore” but “a demon on a war path.”
Morris also made threatening statements in the text exchange against local attorneys Jarrett McCormack and Peter Decker, from whom the former client had sought legal advice. Although sending texts that threatened bodily harm or death was a felony in Virginia, the former client did not seek charges against Morris, according to the bar documents.
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Morris was interviewed by an investigator for the Virginia State Bar on Oct. 7 and admitted to sending the texts, the documents said. He told the investigator the client had threatened him and his family first and that he “had to protect his family.” Morris also told the investigator he was under a great deal of stress in his personal life and business at the time, and that his law practice was falling apart because clients weren’t paying him.
“I was a completely different person then, as compared to now,” Morris is quoted as saying in the documents.
“Morris explained he was given a second chance at the Portsmouth CWA office, he is happy there, he feels he is doing a good job there, and he is attempting to turn his life around,” the document says.
Morales wrote in his letter to the bar that Morris had been doing exceptional work and was well-liked by his colleagues. He started off handling DUI and misdemeanor cases and moved on to more serious felony cases, he wrote. She described him as knowledgeable, professional, respectful and hard-working.
“Mr. Morris has not missed a beat during this transition and continues to produce at the high level I have come to expect from him,” wrote Morales. “I acknowledge that Mr. Morris made some mistakes towards the end of his career in private practice. He has always been remorseful and taken responsibility for those mistakes when speaking with me. Mr. Morris’ actions, since he has been employed in this office, have shown that he has taken the necessary steps to ensure those mistakes will not be repeated.”
Jane Harper, [email protected]