Man is ordered to stand trial in children's deaths Robert Morris Jr. is accused of killing four babies over 8 years. His lawyer says the state has no case.

Posted: April 28, 2004

After a prosecutor argued yesterday that evidence shows that Robert Morris Jr. is "a baby-killer," the 27-year-old Roxborough man was ordered to stand trial on charges his killed his four infant children over eight years.

"Your Honor, you can't look at this case in a vacuum," Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron told Municipal Court Judge Marsha H. Neifield. "There is one similarity in all these cases, and that's the defendant."

The prosecutor's case hinges on testimony from the Medical Examiner's Office that the babies - two girls and two boys - likely died from homicidal asphyxiation, not sudden infant death syndrome or other illnesses.

But defense attorney Paul J. Hetznecker called the murder charges against his client a "travesty" and argued that the prosecution was relying on speculation.

"There is not one scintilla or shred of evidence that connects my client" to the four deaths, Hetznecker told the judge.

Throughout the hearing yesterday, Morris - clad in a navy sweatsuit with red stripes - hung his head and periodically covered his eyes with his hand.

He was arrested in March, after the Dec. 12 death of his 3-month-old son, Jhayden Morris. The baby had pneumonia and asphyxiated, according to autopsy reports.

But the death triggered a police investigation after relatives reported that Morris' 3-week-old son, Robert Isaiah Morris, died in 2002, and that in 1995 his two young daughters by a different mother were victims of unsolved homicides.

In the two days before 18-month-old Shainara Payne and 5-month-old LaShai Payne were discovered dead in their beds on June 4, 1995, Morris fought bitterly with the girls' mother after she broke off their relationship.

"He said he wasn't going to have his children around a whole lot of other guys," the girls' mother, Damika Payne, testified yesterday at Morris' preliminary hearing.

Morris spent the next night watching his daughters in their East Germantown home. When Damika Payne awoke, the girls were dead.

Deputy Medical Examiner Ian Hood testified that the deaths were ruled homicides by asphyxiation.

"Was there a hand over their mouth? Were they pushed down into the bedding? I can't really tell you that," Hood said.

Detectives interviewed Morris three times after the deaths, but no one was charged.

"They knew they didn't have a case then, and they don't have a case now," Hetznecker said.

The third child's death was initially attributed to sudden infant death syndrome but was ruled a homicide after his younger brother's death a year later.

"We had no knowledge that the father of Robert Isaiah Morris was the father of the two Payne children we had in 1995, seven years before," Hood testified.

But Hood said that because the fourth child, Jhayden, suffered from pneumonia at the time of death, he could not absolutely determine that it was a homicide, although he believed more likely than not the child was murdered.

The boys' mother, Carrie Longacre, testified that Morris discovered that their first son was not breathing, and unsuccessfully performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

During her next pregnancy, the pair attended classes on preventing sudden infant death syndrome, she testified. She discovered their second child was not breathing when she returned home from work after the boy spent the afternoon in his father's care.

But Longacre also testified that since her boyfriend's arrest, she continues to write to him and take his calls from jail. She acknowledged she had feelings for Morris, and under questioning from Hetznecker, she said Morris was a loving and caring father.

Hetznecker asked the judge to dismiss the charges, arguing that when each case is viewed independently the evidence is insufficient.

But Neifield ordered Morris to stand trial on all charges and scheduled arraignment for May 19.

Morris is jailed without bail, and Cameron said the District Attorney's Office had not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline Soteropoulos at 215-854-4497 or jsoteropoulos@phillynews.com.

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