One murder in rural Mississippi underscores the nation’s struggle to contain violent crime
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James Bailey was sleeping the sleep of a longtime lawman, police radio next to his pillow, when a call sliced through the early hours of Aug. 7, 2020. It didn’t take much to rouse the sheriff of Jefferson County, Miss. By the time he heard his deputy tell the dispatcher “somebody done shot and killed this subject,” Bailey was half-dressed in yesterday’s clothes and out the door.
Seven miles south of the county seat he encountered the crime scene—a single box truck stranded in the shadows of a deserted highway median. Since two officers were already busy inside the truck, the sheriff grabbed traffic cones and started placing them around bullet casings he found scattered on the pavement. It wasn’t until he made a call requesting more units that Bailey learned the identity of the man lying dead inside the truck. The news stopped him cold.
Was it really Troy? Troy Morris?
Morris was a local fella, another law enforcement officer working a second job hauling mail for the U.S. Postal Service. He was Bailey’s friend.
The sheriff didn’t know it then, but Morris’ murder would be part of a trend. Homicides in the United States spiked by nearly 30 percent that year, the largest single-year increase in recent history. Some reports attribute the rise to the pandemic. Others point to social unrest, even the gun sales that characterized 2020.
But none of that factored into Morris’ murder. It was a black-on-black crime in a rural area little affected by pandemic prohibitions. His death might be better explained by the charge that eventually sent his killer to jail, a criminal offense with a surprisingly theological ring— “depraved heart murder.”
While most Americans aren’t familiar with that particular type of second degree murder, they do understand a phrase used to describe it—wanton indifference to life. Evidence of indifference to life shouts from every news cycle, whether it’s the murder of a commuter on Chicago’s Red Line or a Memphis mom on her morning run. Indifference to life is growing like malignant cancer. And a sliver of details from a murder like Morris’? It’s the confirming biopsy.
WHEN U.S. HIGHWAY 61 begins its leg through Mississippi, it takes on a new name, the Blues Highway. At a junction of 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, legendary blues musician Robert Johnson reportedly sold his soul to master the genre. That tale probably doesn’t sit well with Baptists who built a drive-through display noting their historical roots several miles away. There, a marker recognizing the first church in Mississippi, built when George Washington was president, stands tall. Troy Morris died barely a stone’s throw from that marker. When residents tell you how to find the spot, though, they reference the landfill on the right instead. Always the landfill.
Both it and the Baptist drive-through are in Jefferson County, the second oldest in the state with the second-highest black population in the country. It’s a small place with a big reputation. Welfare dependency is high. Nearly a third of residents live in poverty. The incarceration rate is seven times the national average. In 2021, every birth in Jefferson County was to an unwed mother.
That’s a hard dowry for any county to carry, but Jefferson’s rolling, wooded land attracts the attention of suitors, anyway. Timber companies and hunting clubs claim vast tracts. It’s the epitome of being land rich and job poor. While the rest of the country posts a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, more than 14 percent of Jefferson County residents are out of work.
That’s why Troy Morris’ assailants could ride the roads at 4 a.m. Come daylight, they had nowhere to be.
That wasn’t the case for Morris. The 58-year-old thrived on the rhythm of work. In addition to his career as a lieutenant with the Mississippi Highway Patrol, he moonlighted for more than a decade, driving a truckload of mail from Jackson to Natchez at least two nights a week. It was punctual business conducted by the glow of dashboard lights. Morris’ hundred-mile route stopped for no man, but it did stop for a flat tire the last night he would ever work.
Oddly enough, he got the flat just a few miles from home, a modest one-story he shared with his wife, Gale. Twelve hours earlier, Troy had been there, taking a nap before he went in for his night shift. When Gale shook him awake just before 5 p.m., she laughed. Troy was wearing tennis shoes from two different pairs. She fixed that, then sent him out the door. Like always, Troy stopped to plant a kiss on her forehead. Like always, Gale waved as he honked, then disappeared down the road.
Not too far away, three young men—Treyon Washington, 24, Cdarrius Norman, 17, and Damion Whittley, 25—were making plans of their own for the night. At some point, they picked up two female friends and drove to a Waffle House in Vicksburg. One of those young women would later tell authorities it was there that she overheard the guys talk about “hitting a lick,” slang for getting some money. Quick.
Hours passed. Authorities believe the trio dropped the girls off, then made their way down Highway 61, not far behind Troy Morris. Morris, meanwhile, had pulled over and tried to report his flat tire to the mail service. When that didn’t work, he called Troop M, his highway patrol substation. While he was talking with the dispatcher, a vehicle turned around and stopped beside Morris’ truck. It was the three young men. Norman and Washington remained inside while the driver, Damion Whittley, stepped out and walked up to Morris’ window. Investigators believe he asked for a cigarette or a light. It’s likely Morris had both. He was fond of smoking.
When Whittley walked back to his vehicle, he got a gun. Whatever happened next left Morris dead. Life as they’d known it vanished for the other three men, too, right along with their tail lights as they sped off into the night.
No one can say for sure whether Morris knew Whittley or if Whittley knew him. Most folks around town assumed the motive was robbery. But according to Mark Cochran, owner of Blackwell Hauling, the company that contracted for the postal service, the trucks carried only packages and letters. “No money,” Cochran maintains. “Everybody knows that.”
Whatever the motive, Morris’ death was a deeply felt loss, especially at his workplace. Just as calls for defunding police began wreaking havoc on officer recruitment and retention, Troop M lost a career patrolman, a supervisor with 28 years of experience. It also lost a dispatcher. In her last exchange with him that night, the dispatcher heard Morris talking with his killer. It was too much. She quit.
VIOLENCE SPREAD like a contagion in 2020, right alongside COVID-19. Homicides have since begun a downward trend nationally, but for more than a few major cities, they remain at record highs. Some streets are worse than a war zone. A soldier was safer in Iraq in 2008 than he would have been last year in parts of Los Angeles, a city that had 373 killings. On the other side of the country, New York City had marked 237 murders by August.
Murder is also up in Memphis, Tenn., Kansas City, Mo., Seattle, Wash., Mesa, Ariz., and at least 41 other major cities, according to tracker AH Datalytics. Greensboro, N.C., is even on track to double the number of murders it recorded in 2022.
Groups like Families Against Senseless Killings are meeting in Greensboro, trying to find ways to combat the evil. But it will take more than a new initiative or changes in the police department.
Murders, when solved, get different labels. Depraved heart murder is a crime category that goes back hundreds of years, to the common law system in England. It’s murder through extreme recklessness, though not explicitly intended. In Mississippi, depraved heart killings constitute a heavier charge than negligent or involuntary manslaughter. In Damion Whittley’s case, it became a concession. A bargaining chip in his plea agreement process.
But for Christians trying to understand what happened to Morris, depravity is the only thing that makes sense. Proverbs speaks of the wicked desiring evil and a neighbor finding no mercy in his eyes. That sounds a lot like what happened on Highway 61. It’s a story that highlights where the nation’s ills, left unchecked and unchanged by the power of the gospel, can lead.
The morning of Morris’ murder, while Jefferson County was waking up to the news that a murderer—or murderers—was on the loose, Gale Morris was walking into her job at Walmart. She remembers hearing some noise on the scanner before she left her house. She even tried to call Troy. But when she didn’t get an answer, she drove on to work, right past the house where Treyon Washington lived. Gale wanted to be early for her 6 a.m. shift.
She talks of these things easily now, sitting on a couch in the living room she once shared with Troy. He looks at her, eye-level, from an old photo perched on the television cabinet. He is young and uniformed. Serious.
“Co-workers were asking me why I was there,” Gale remembers, reliving that day with the clarity that comes with unexpected widowhood. She didn’t know what was wrong. She wouldn’t believe reports that Troy had been shot. When Troy’s captain finally arrived, he placed her hands in his, and they prayed.
“Take me to him. Take me to the hospital,” Gale pleaded. The captain just shook his head.
BULLETS KILL PEOPLE, and they can also kill the conscience of a community. As law enforcement personnel swept down on Jefferson County that day, they faced a difficult manhunt. They had no security camera footage to check from the murder scene, no eyewitnesses. They needed help from the public, but the public wasn’t eager to help. A team of narcotics officers finally got a break when they found the house where Damion Whittley had gone to clean a bullet wound to his arm. Troy Morris, it seemed, had gotten a shot off before he died. After that, the trail was hot.
At least one of the fugitives didn’t fit the typical mold of a man on the run for murder. Just a year earlier, Treyon Washington had been busy launching aircraft for the U.S. Navy. He finished his enlistment in 2019. According to his mother, Rossline Smith, Washington is a good father to a son born to him in California. He had savings that allowed him to take his time finding the right job when he returned to Jefferson County.
Smith, sitting in the family’s well-appointed mobile home, says she knew her son was at Waffle House the night of the murder, because she was tracking him on her phone. She even “prayed the blood of Jesus over him” as she drifted off to sleep.
But the next morning, as her world turned upside down and her yard filled with law enforcement officers seeking answers, Smith prayed again. She prayed her son, hunkered down in Baton Rouge, would turn himself in. He did. Whittley and Norman, on the other hand, decided to keep running. Authorities soon captured them in New Orleans.
Smith is a mother who went to all the parent-teacher conferences. A mother who is still quick to pull out his smiling snapshot. “Do I think my son has been an angel? No,” Smith admits, shaking her head, which is wrapped in a bright red turban. “But I know he’s not a killer. I do know that.”
The shooter is her son’s cousin. Smith says Whittley was a regular in her home, and she was never afraid of him. “He was always respectful towards me. What he did on the streets, I didn’t know anything about that.”
It turns out there was quite a bit to know. Whittley shouldn’t have been free to murder Morris. He should have been behind bars. He was wanted on the Gulf Coast in connection to a 2019 murder, and he was supposed to be on house arrest for a 2018 grand larceny conviction.
But long before that, Whittley was stirring up trouble in Natchez, the town just south of Jefferson County. Investigator Stanley Searcy remembers Whittley was wearing an ankle monitor at 13. “His mother couldn’t manage him, and he was on probation for not going to school. We’d get calls to come get him out of bed.”
Searcy is a prime-of-life sort of peacekeeper. He’s fit and fast, not the kind of alarm clock a juvenile delinquent can ignore. But it wasn’t long before Whittley’s crimes increased from truancy to stealing four wheelers and dirt bikes. Searcy recalls arresting him for his part in a theft ring that stretched into three counties, including Jefferson. “So we knew him pretty well.”
Searcy also knew Cdarrius Norman, the youngest offender involved in Morris’ murder. They were in church together, but Searcy watched Norman grow into a teenager who strayed away into the streets. After Norman’s arrest, Searcy had an opportunity to talk with him. “I told him he should have never left the church. Not the building, but his relationship with God. He just dropped his head and said I was right.”
Norman’s sister was his tie to Whittley. Family was also the tie for Washington, something Searcy says is common. “People who have a lot to lose associate with people who have nothing to lose, and they lose everything.”
Searcy says the reach of crime doesn’t surprise him anymore. The previous week, he’d seen a kid riding a bike with a pistol strapped to his side. The death of his friend Troy Morris, a man he said would have given those three guys money, a meal—anything they needed—doesn’t surprise Searcy, either. He says the depraved heart murder description is apt.
“Cold-hearted malice. Every single day we suit up and strap up, that’s what we face.”
THE DOG DAYS of summer have brought a storm through the heart of Jefferson County, knocking out power for miles. Linemen are working on the transformer on Industrial Road, but Subway regulars in Fayette must find lunch elsewhere. Customers of the Glamorous Beauty Supply and 211 Package Store stand disappointed as well. Behind their burglar-barred doors and windows, all is dark.
Inside the Jefferson County Courthouse, the lights are blinking on and off, thanks to the storm and an unpredictable generator. But that doesn’t stop the jury foreman from announcing the verdict in what the plaintiff’s lawyer calls a “slip and fall case.” The award rings out—$400,000 for past, present, and future medical and emotional suffering. The local Dollar General has to ante up. But that’s nothing compared to the jury awards that made Jefferson County famous—or infamous, if you were on the wrong side of a verdict.
In the 1990s, tort attorneys flocked to the county, where juries were known to ladle out lavish awards that at least once reached nine figures. That case involved the diet drug fen-phen, and plaintiffs received $150 million. In time, the county’s generous jurors attracted the attention of federal agents, who arrested several residents after investigating how they became part of the lawsuit and how juries were picked.
Tort reform in following years supposedly put an end to what had become known as Mississippi’s “jackpot justice,” but smaller windfalls are evidently still possible, as Dollar General learned.
Troy Morris’ accused murderers made their initial appearance in a lower court called justice court. Marcus Walton was on the bench that morning. Besides being a justice court judge, he’s also principal of Jefferson County High School. That’s how he knew one of the defendants, Treyon Washington. As a student, Walton said, Washington was quiet, no trouble.
Walton also knew Troy Morris and had often watched the trooper testify in court. “He could tell you the time of the stop, the highway, how fast the car was going, what was said when he pulled the individual over. He was very detailed in all of his testimonies.”
Walton bound all three defendants’ cases over to a grand jury and denied them bond. But the educator in Walton winced at what he saw as not one but four tragedies. “You just feel whupped,” he admits.
In 2022, after denying guilt in the murder of Troy Morris for two years, Damion Whittley wanted to plea bargain. Instead of capital murder, he’d agree to second degree murder. Even though Jefferson County District Attorney Daniella Shorter believed the state had a strong capital case, she had to weigh it out, she said. “You just never know, especially in small communities.” And, some would say, in Jefferson County. “We have presented cases before where the evidence left no room for dispute, and they came back not guilty.”
Shorter is a to-the-point kind of lawyer, one who grew up in the area and got her first briefcase in seventh grade. Discussing the murder at her office in downtown Fayette, she admits Morris’ law enforcement background could be a negative, too. After consulting with Gale Morris, Shorter agreed to the petition. She puts it as plainly as she can: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
In the end, Whittley pleaded guilty to second degree depraved heart murder and received the maximum sentence of 40 years, 30 of those without the possibility of parole. The charges on the Gulf Coast caught up with him, too. He got 20 years for manslaughter in connection to the broad-daylight shooting of Bay St. Louis resident Delfred Lewis Jr. For their role in Morris’ murder, Washington and Cdarrius Norman pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact. Norman, the youngest, got 20 years, with 10 years suspended. Washington got 20 years, with 15 suspended.
Washington’s mother, Rossline Smith, doesn’t spend much time thinking about the past. She has a 5-year-old daughter running around her feet and a husband in the hospital with kidney failure. But outside in her yard, a fledgling greenhouse is propped up alongside her dream of running a farm. She’s waiting for Washington to come home and help her build the business.
“He’s going to have a felony behind his name,” she reasons. “It will be hard for him to find a good job.” Washington is set for release in November 2024.
ON THE SAME DAY the storm plunged parts of Jefferson County into darkness, Gale Morris is sitting at home, watching TV. A generator hums in the background. Friends have checked on her, like they do most days. They also keep the grass cut, going on three years now. She’s yet to learn how to operate Troy’s zero turn mower.
It’s not easy staying here, though. Gale is making plans to move somewhere else, a place where she doesn’t know someone from each of the assailants’ families. A grown daughter and a stockpile of memories keep her company. “Troy called me that night at 8:20,” she says, just like he always did. Troy told Gale he had arrived and was loading his mail. It was the last time they ever talked.
Back in Fayette, Sheriff James Bailey is dealing with the power outage at the jail. He’s watching as inmates in orange jumpsuits, trying to escape the heat indoors, mill around a yard topped with razor wire. He’s been sheriff long enough to know how to handle the lights being out. Knowing how to handle senseless killings—how to handle indifference to life—is a bigger challenge. Bailey admits Morris’ murder has been a hard pill to swallow. He’s willing to talk about it, but three years later it still seems fresh. He takes off his trademark cowboy hat and pauses, sweat trickling down the length of his sideburns.
“The last time I saw Troy, he was running radar out at Dennis Crossroads,” he says, pointing to an intersection somewhere in the distance. Bailey remembers pulling his truck up beside Morris’ patrol car and talking for a while. As Morris mentioned hopes of retiring soon, their conversation was cut short. A speeder whizzed by, running at least 90 if the sheriff’s a good guesser. He says Morris didn’t hesitate.
“He left right away, because that’s what troopers do. Troy proceeded to do a job that he loved, trying to save lives.”
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