Iraq put his life on the trigger
When Cody Alexander Morris returned from the war last fall, he carried home a burden -- a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder -- and a new way of playing with guns.
The gun game was called “Do You Trust Me?” Morris, 19, learned it from his Kentucky National Guard buddies in Iraq.
He taught the game to his roommates: best friend and fellow guardsman Casey Lee Hall, 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, Cory Adams. The young men would point unloaded handguns at each other’s heads, ask “Do you trust me?” and pull the trigger.
Sometimes the guns came out while the teenagers drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and played violent video games. They called each other CWB, for “crazy white boy,” and had those three words tattooed on their necks.
“It fit us pretty good,” Morris said recently, “‘cause we are crazy white boys. We were potheads -- we’d just drink and smoke . . . and play-fight.”
But the carousing masked Morris’ troubled state. His PTSD was so severe, his friends said, that he couldn’t sleep. He had terrifying visions of people he had killed in combat.
Morris showed his friends horrific photos from Iraq -- “people with their heads blowed off . . . guts ripped out on barbed wire . . . bullet holes in every piece of body,” said a friend, Dustin Newton.
Sometimes, friends said, Morris would show the photos and laugh.
At night, Morris slept with a loaded 9-millimeter Ruger semiautomatic handgun under his mattress. His mother bought the gun for him because he was two years shy of being able to buy it legally.
That gun was in Morris’ hand when it went off on the night of Oct. 18, killing Hall with a perfectly placed shot between his eyes.
Cody Morris is small and nimble -- 5 foot 6 and 140 pounds. He refers to himself as “not a real smart guy.” He has a severe learning disability and reads below the eighth-grade level. He failed fourth grade and repeated ninth grade before dropping out.
At 15, he was sent to a military-themed reform school for standing lookout while a friend robbed a store. He was 17 when he earned a GED.
Morris remembers a turbulent upbringing in Bardwell, where he lived in a trailer with a blended family. (He has a sister, two half-sisters, two half-brothers and three stepsisters.) One Christmas, he said, his stepfather smashed the gifts under the tree and wrote “slut” on a wall with Miracle Whip after a fight with Morris’ mother.
Morris was eager to leave Bardwell, population 793, a speck in the road in far-western rural Kentucky, the county seat in a county with just one stoplight. Two prominent features downtown are a large Confederate flag and a “God Bless Our Troops” sign.
Morris decided to follow his older sister, Larissa Roach, into the Guard. He was underage, so his mother signed him up.
“I wanted him out of this town,” said his mother, Bonnie Fernandez, citing a lack of opportunities.
Morris persuaded Hall -- his best friend since fourth grade -- to join the Guard with him. Hall’s mother enlisted him two days before he turned 17.
Morris seemed to find a home in the military, with its codes of honor and discipline. In October 2006, he was sent to war. He turned 18 the day he landed in Iraq.
Morris said his base near Baghdad was attacked almost daily. He described shooting an insurgent in the chest and seeing his face as he died. He spoke of seeing bodies floating in a canal and stepping on human brains during a house raid.
His team leader noticed disturbing changes in his personality and persuaded him to see a military psychiatrist, who diagnosed PTSD, Morris said.
“She cracked me open,” he said. “I let it all out. I was crying. I had been holding it all in. . . . She really helped me.”
About 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD or major depression, a Rand Corp. study found. Only a small percentage have committed violent crimes. The veterans receive various levels of treatment -- or no treatment at all in half the cases, according to Rand.
Back home, Morris stopped taking the sedative prescribed in Iraq. He was not seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist. He passed the time getting high, showing off his gun and playing video games.
Morris said he heard screams in his sleep and suffered flashbacks that made him feel he was “fixing to die.” He was afraid to ride in cars because he thought other drivers were plotting to ram him with explosives. He avoided soda cans because opening them produced a fizzy noise that sounded like a bullet passing overhead.
Even so, he told people he was leaving soon for Ft. Benning, Ga., to apply for Special Forces training. He said he wanted to return to Iraq.
He loved the military, and he loved his gun; he said it felt natural to carry it for protection. “Your weapon is your body,” he told police. Gordon Williams, a psychologist who later examined Morris, said the gun had become “part of his persona.”
Once, Adams said, he and Morris were horsing around when the gun went off, putting a slug in a wall. Another time, according to Matt Turnbow, 19, a casual acquaintance, Morris put the barrel of his unloaded gun into another friend’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
Adams, who idolized his cousin, wanted a gun to play with too. He stole a 9-millimeter handgun from a car last fall, he told police. On Oct. 18, two weeks after Morris came home, he and Adams -- along with Hall and Turnbow -- were smoking dope and playing Call of Duty, a video game. As usual, Morris and Adams brandished their guns. What happened next that evening has been in dispute. During questioning by police, Morris said Hall had fired the shot that ripped through his brain. Then Morris stopped talking. “He just picked out a spot and stared at it like we wasn’t there,” Carlisle County Sheriff Steve McChristian said.
Morris was charged with wanton murder and jailed; he faced up to 50 years in prison.
In December, an arsonist burned down the county courthouse in Bardwell, where some evidence in the murder case was stored. Cody’s father, Larry Morris, was questioned and his home searched, the sheriff said. The elder Morris was not charged, pending further investigation. But police did jail him on charges of intimidating a witness: Turnbow.
Mark Bryant, a prominent lawyer in nearby Paducah and a former state prosecutor, was hired to defend Cody Morris. Bryant has a swashbuckling courtroom style and a soothing twang that charms juries. He argued that the shooting was a terrible accident caused when Adams tried to wrestle the gun from Morris. The situation was exacerbated by Morris’ PTSD, he said.
“Cody came back from Iraq a totally different person,” psychologically damaged by killing and brutality, Bryant told a jury earlier this month in a makeshift courtroom at the Bardwell Masonic Lodge.
The prosecutor, Mike Stacy, dismissed the PTSD talk. Stacy reminded the jury that he himself had grown up in Bardwell, where people, he said, rely on their common sense. Clearly, Morris -- not PTSD -- was responsible for his actions, Stacy said. He intentionally killed his best friend during an argument, he said.
“He got mad and grabbed that gun and shot that boy between the eyes,” Stacy said.
The teenagers who witnessed the shooting confessed that at first they had told the sheriff a rehearsed lie about Hall committing suicide. Their story unraveled later that night when Turnbow called Hall’s mother, and then the police, to say that Hall had been shot by Morris. Morris had placed the gun in Hall’s hand as his best friend lay dying, the teens ultimately told police.
Turnbow, a shambling, unkempt young man who had known Morris for only two weeks, became the prosecutor’s key witness. But Turnbow gave contradictory statements to police and offered shifting accounts on the witness stand.
He told the sheriff in a written statement: “Because it was an accident, Cody would go to jail for a long time for something he didn’t mean to do.”
In court, Turnbow said Morris shot his best friend on purpose after Hall addressed Morris by a racial slur for blacks. Friends said the teenagers, though white, sometimes used the slur as a grave insult.
Turnbow denied to defense attorney Bryant that he ever told the police the shooting was an accident. Bryant was incredulous -- Turnbow’s statements to the police were right in front of him. He suggested Turnbow was high on marijuana. “I think the guy’s messed up right now!” he told the judge.
In his testimony, Adams acknowledged lunging for Morris’ gun but denied that he touched the weapon. Adams said the shooting was an accident. But he also said Morris and Hall had argued over whether blacks and whites belonged to the same species.
One intriguing bit of testimony in the two-day trial came from a medical examiner, who noted that the fatal shot struck “right between the eyebrows” -- a highly unlikely bullet path for an accidental shot, she said.
Prosecutor Stacy drove home the point, showing the jurors a color photograph of Hall’s face with the fatal wound.
Bryant countered with testimony from Williams, the psychologist, who has counseled thousands of veterans with PTSD. Williams said he had examined Morris for 90 minutes and concluded that he had PTSD and was “in severe distress.”
Bryant put Morris on the witness stand.
He wore his military dress green uniform with his Iraq campaign ribbon. Morris told the jury that Adams had pointed a loaded 9-millimeter handgun at Hall earlier that evening, prompting Hall to take the clip.
Hall asked Morris for his gun, possibly intending to point it at Adams after Adams demanded his clip back.
He offered Hall the gun, Morris said, holding it by the rear slide, his finger away from the trigger. Adams lunged for the weapon, he said, and it discharged.
Under cross-examination, Stacy asked Morris how Adams could have put his finger on the trigger and hit Hall perfectly between the eyes if the two cousins were wrestling over it.
Morris shrugged: “It’s true.”
If Morris was so traumatized by death and violence in Iraq, Stacy asked, why did he play video games that required him to kill imaginary characters? Did he have a good time playing?
Morris hesitated. “Yes, sir.”
If Iraq caused his PTSD, Stacy asked, why was Morris so eager to go back?
“I would rather myself go to combat if it has to be done,” Morris answered. “I know the job.”
The jury was instructed to decide among three charges -- wanton murder, second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide -- plus a separate charge of tampering with evidence for staging the gun in Hall’s hand.
After deliberating just over two hours, the six men and six women decided on the least of the charges, reckless homicide. They also found Morris guilty of tampering with evidence. Both charges carry prison sentences of one to five years.
Morris stared straight ahead, his palms on his thighs.
In the courtroom gallery, police kept watch over Morris’ and Hall’s friends and family members. There had been rumors of threats and confrontations.
Morris, smoking a cigarette outside while the jury deliberated his sentencing, said he understood the Hall family’s anguish. “They may all hate me,” he said, “but I still love them.”
Vicky Payne, Hall’s mother, sat in a car, weeping. Hall’s stepfather, Rollie Payne, cursed Morris. “We’ll never get past this,” Payne said, biting off the words. “There is no closure because there is no justice.”
Three hours later, the jury recommended maximum sentences of five years on each count, to be served consecutively. When Morris’ mother heard the sentences, she let out a sharp cry and buried her face in her hands. Bryant patted her shoulder. Counting time served awaiting trial, Bryant told her, Morris would be eligible for parole in less than two years. Morris watched, impassive.
Afterward, Stacy said that although the defense had portrayed Morris as both a PTSD victim and a war hero, he did not think the jurors had bought into that. “I know war heroes,” Stacy said, “and Cody Morris is no war hero.”
Before the sentencing, as Morris smoked outside, he said it didn’t really matter if he went to prison, or for how long. He still planned to figure out a way to get back to Iraq.
Zucchino was on assignment in Kentucky early this month.