The discovery of Suzanne Morphew’s body more than three years after the 49-year-old mother disappeared from her Chaffee County home could be the key to unraveling the mystery of what happened to her — but the dropped prosecution of her husband thrusts the case into complicated legal territory, experts told The Denver Post on Thursday.
Who should be charged, which prosecutor’s office should pursue the case and whether that initial attempt at a prosecution might hobble a second try are all up for debate, they said.
“This whole situation presents many novel issues that are fascinating from a legal perspective,” said Doug Richards, a Denver defense attorney not involved in the case.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents found Morphew’s remains on Sept. 22 near Moffat in Saguache County, about a 45-minute drive from her home in Maysville, where she was last seen alive before she was reported missing on May 10, 2020. Her husband, 55-year-old Barry Morphew, was charged with first-degree murder a year after she disappeared.
Prosecutors with 11th Judicial District Attorney Linda Stanley’s office alleged Barry Morphew killed his wife on the evening of May 9, 2020, after discovering her nearly 2-year extramarital affair, then disposed of her body and staged a bike crash before leaving early the next day to work in Broomfield. Morphew maintained he left his wife asleep in bed on the morning she disappeared and has argued she was abducted or ran away.
Stanley dropped all charges against Barry Morphew in April 2022 after prosecutors egregiously violated discovery rules and then-Fremont County District Court Judge Ramsey Lama blocked the prosecution from using most of its expert witnesses at trial as punishment.
Iris Eytan, Barry Morphew’s attorney, said Thursday that Suzanne Morphew’s remains were found in a shallow grave in a field as authorities searched for another missing woman. CBI spokeswoman Lisa Kohlbrenner would not confirm or deny those details.
Eytan said the new evidence strengthens Barry Morphew’s long-held claims of innocence.
“We hope the authorities will quickly admit their wrongful persecution of Barry, an innocent man, treat the Morphews like the victims they are and charge the person(s) responsible for Suzanne’s killing,” she said in a statement Wednesday.
Suzanne Morphew’s body was not where prosecutors thought it would be.
When Stanley asked to drop the case against Barry Morphew in April 2022, she wrote in court filings that investigators believed they were close to finding Suzanne Morphew’s body, and that they were searching a “mountainous region” near Barry Morphew’s home that was at the time buried under five feet of snow.
The area around Moffat, where Suzanne Morphew’s remains were found, is a flat plain, tucked between two distant lines of mountains. The town is 45 miles south of the Morphew home. In April 2022, the area around Moffat was experiencing high temperatures in the 70s and little snowfall, according to the National Weather Service at Pueblo.
What that means for the case remains to be seen, said former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, who is not involved in the investigation.
“The issue — and it’s impossible to know this from the outside — is what is the other evidence, and how does the location of this body and whatever evidence they gained from finding a body fit into the theory of the prosecution,” he said.
But Eytan argued that the body’s location suggests Barry Morphew did not kill his wife.
“At no time did the FBI, CBI, Chaffee County Sheriff Office or DA’s office pinpoint or even generally claim that Barry was in any area south of his home, near Moffat or anywhere near Saguache County at any relevant time frame,” she said. “It would be ludicrous for anyone to now try to fit the now-known facts to prior false assumptions and accusations.”
During Barry Morphew’s preliminary hearing, prosecutors presented evidence that his truck was used around 3:30 a.m. on May 10, and that his cellphone appeared to move into the area where his wife’s abandoned bicycle was found, though the phone’s data was inconclusive because of poor cell coverage in the area. His wife’s phone last pinged at 4:23 a.m. that day.
The hearing also included testimony that Barry Morphew had scratches on his arm that appeared to be injuries from fingernails after Suzanne Morphew disappeared, and that the couple’s marriage was troubled.
The preliminary hearing did not include evidence to show Barry Morphew drove south that night.
“Law enforcement officials that were supposedly looking for Suzanne were never looking for Suzanne in the Moffat area or the area south of Maysville, because they only focused in on Barry being the suspect,” Eytan said in a statement Thursday. “And they knew Barry was not south of Maysville, and certainly not 45 miles south.”
When considering whether the evidence now points to Barry Morphew or another suspect, the prosecution and law enforcement are likely to proceed carefully, said Colin McCallin, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case.
“If there was a lesson to be learned, it’s that the initial prosecution was rushed,” he said. “No two ways about it. They made a charging decision without the benefit of having a body, without a crime scene, without a murder weapon — it was a very difficult prosecution from the very beginning… I would absolutely expect the district attorney’s office and CBI to move very methodically here. The last thing they want to do is charge anyone, much less Mr. Morphew again, just to see the case get dismissed because they’re not quite ready.”
Who takes the case?
Because Suzanne Morphew’s body was found across county lines, there’s a jurisdictional question about which district attorney’s office will prosecute the case.
The body was discovered in Saguache County — the 12th Judicial District — so 12th Judicial District Attorney Anne Kelley could take the case. But the case has deep ties to locations in the 11th Judicial District, where Stanley is district attorney, so she could also lay claim to it, Garnett said.
“Normally district attorneys work that out among themselves,” he said. “…You just get together and say, ‘Which office has the most direct connection in this case?’ And that is usually the one who does it… Given all the problems that they’ve had with getting this case prosecuted in the 11th Judicial District, someone might say, ‘We should let the other DA’s office do it, because they don’t have the same baggage.’”
Megan Bagwell, with the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said Wednesday that prosecutors had not decided which jurisdiction will take the lead now.
Which office takes the case could make a big difference should prosecutors once again file charges against Barry Morphew, McCallin said.
The sanctions that the judge levied against Stanley during the first prosecution might carry over into a new case against Barry Morphew, McCallin said, and Morphew’s defense team could seek to block the same expert witnesses from testifying.
“I think his defense team can attempt to say, ‘We want to abide by rulings in the previous case’ …especially since (the witnesses) were excluded due to misconduct by the district attorney’s office,” McCallin said. “But the prosecution can counter that by saying, ‘Well that prosecution was being handled by a different office, that prosecution was hampered by the fact a body wasn’t found.’ The prosecution is going to have a good argument to say, ‘Look, the game has totally changed.’”
That argument is stronger if Stanley’s office isn’t the one prosecuting the case, McCallin added.
“I can also see a scenario where there is information learned from the body related to the autopsy, manner of death — if they are able to use any information to tie the crime to a different county, this could end up back with Linda Stanley, which I think, would be a problem, given the history of this case,” he said.
Barry Morphew has a $15 million federal civil rights lawsuit pending against Stanley and local authorities over the dropped murder prosecution. He claims his constitutional rights were violated and that authorities conspired to wrongly arrest him, fabricated evidence and concealed exculpatory evidence.
The federal lawsuit could continue even if Morphew is once again charged with his wife’s murder, McCallin said.
“I think his attorneys will argue it doesn’t matter if he ends up getting charged in a different jurisdiction, his rights were still violated, he was still held in custody for several months in a case where prosecutors withheld or misrepresented evidence,” he said.
Eytan said Thursday that she believes CBI, local law enforcement and the 11th District Attorney’s Office all have conflicts of interest in the case and should not investigate Suzanne Morphew’s death further.
“An objective and unbiased examination of Suzanne’s death can only be conducted by an outside and independent team of investigators,” she said.
Denver Post staff writer Katie Langford contributed to this report.
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