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Louisa murder case on hold while court considers whether defense attorney crossed an ethical line

Posted on Monday, June 4, 2018 at 4:45 am

Louisa County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rusty McGuire (l) and Joe Morrissey (r), who is serving as Clifford Wood’s defense attorney, each claim the other has interfered with trial witnesses.

The murder trial of Clifford Wood is on hold while a court considers whether his defense attorney, Joe Morrissey, crossed an ethical line.

Louisa County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rusty McGuire said Morrissey may have helped a witness fabricate a story that Wood acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Sean Houchens on Sept. 1, 2017. The shooting occurred at a house on Jefferson Highway, near the Hanover County line. Houchens died hours later at University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville.

Meanwhile, facing a deadline to give Wood a speedy trial, McGuire dropped a first-degree murder charge on May 24. Since Wood was indicted by a grand jury in Louisa Circuit Court in January, he was entitled to a trial within five months.

However, McGuire retained a separate charge of murder by mob, so Wood will stay behind bars. Wood wasn’t indicted on that charge until March. McGuire may seek a new grand jury indictment of first-degree murder.

Louisa Circuit Court Judge Timothy Sanner will consider McGuire’s allegation against Morrissey at a June 4 hearing. The prosecutor says Morrissey’s alleged coaching of a witness is grounds to remove him from the case.

Morrissey emphatically denied the accusation in court last week, and charged McGuire with wrongdoing as well. The prosecutor is trying to intimidate several witnesses in the case by charging them with perjury, Morrissey said.

Morrissey could be barred from representing Wood soon, in any event, unless the Virginia Supreme Court gives him a break. A three-judge panel ruled in March that the Richmond lawyer should lose his law license, effective June 15, due to ethical violations involving his relationship with an underage staffer. Morrissey appealed that decision to the state’s highest court.

McGuire said he is considering asking a special prosecutor to investigate the allegation that Morrissey interfered with a witness.

This is the second time McGuire has sought to remove Morrissey from a case. He also did so in the Kelly Clark attempted murder case, which was scheduled for retrial this week. Morrissey also tried to have McGuire removed from the Clark case.

McGuire previously filed perjury charges against two witnesses in the Wood case, including Wendy Wood, the defendant’s wife, and Stephen Phillips, who allegedly was one of three other men present when Houchens was shot. Both are charged with making false statements during Clifford Wood’s bond hearing in circuit court on Jan. 31.

Phillips is the witness who McGuire alleges was coached before giving testimony during the bond hearing. At that hearing, Phillips denied making certain statements to sheriff’s office investigators after Wood’s arrest.

Louisa County Sheriff’s Office Det. Mark Foster testified at the bond hearing that Phillips told him Wood was jealous of Houchens for spending time with a woman who lived in the Jefferson Highway house. Wood was in a relationship with the woman, McGuire said.

Phillips stated at the bond hearing that Wood’s motivation for going to meet Houchens that night was to pay off part of a drug debt.