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Jury: Morrison not guilty' of robbery

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
May 27, 2004
Robert Van Morrison has a troubled past. He will tell you himself that he's done a lot of time, but says it was for burglaries nothing violent.
He looks the part. His arms are covered in prison tattoos, curvaceous ladies in teddies and bikinis, scary faces, eagles.
Morrison stood trial Wednesday in Lauderdale County Circuit Court for the Sept. 27, 2003, robbery of Dixie Gas at the intersection of North Hills Street and Highway 19 North.
The crime happened at about 3:30 a.m. His co-defendant, Conchita Ott, pleaded guilty in February and is serving a 15-year sentence with 12 years suspended and three to serve. She testified against him.
Morrison was accused of helping plan the robbery and driving the getaway car. He doesn't deny, or at least does not dispute, that he committed a lot of crimes that night. Driving drunk. Smoking crack cocaine.
But, he wasn't being tried for those charges, and says he didn't know that Ott robbed the store until the police came to talk to him the next morning.
After both sides had rested their cases, but before the jury returned its verdict, Morrison said he decided not to testify in his own defense because he didn't want to give the prosecution an opportunity to bring up his criminal history during cross-examination.
Asked why he insisted on standing trial in this case, he said, "Because, I'm innocent."
The jury agreed, acquitting him in just under three hours.
The night in question
One of the most interesting things about a trial like Morrison's is the snapshot it provides into a Saturday night lifestyle most people don't understand.
Three hours before the robbery at Dixie Gas, at about midnight, Morrison and Ott ran into each other at Blanks Motel on Highway 11/80. They smoked some crack, and then left, intent on getting money to buy more drugs.
The next stop was the Economy Inn. Ott apparently turned a couple of tricks to raise some cash although she has given conflicting statements about that. On the stand Wednesday, the young woman who didn't mind admitting to robbery shied from the idea of prostitution.
Ott said she changed into camouflage pants and jacket because she needed big pockets for the next stop, a SuperStop on Highway 19 North. The idea was to steal cartons of cigarettes, and then sell them, but the display had been moved, and the plan failed.
It was then, Ott testified, that she and Morrison had another idea. They knew of a girl who worked the graveyard shift alone at Dixie Gas. So, off they went to rob her.
Ott entered the store alone while Morrison waited outside. She said gave store clerk Nina Lyles a dollar so she would open the register. When she did, Ott dashed the hot coffee in her face, grabbed the money and ran outside to where Morrison was waiting in the car.
Lyles testified that she recognized Morrison in the driver's seat. A witness in the parking lot took down Morrison's license plate number.
Ott said she told Morrison to step on it because "you know what I just did." She testified that she told Morrison to get off North Hills Street and take back roads for the same reason. She pulled off the camouflage clothes and threw them out the window as they drove. Police later found the clothes on the side of the road in Druid Hills.
The next stop was a "dope house" on 18th Avenue. Ott and Morrison used the $87 from the Dixie robbery to buy more crack. Morrison left after awhile. Ott stayed.
The next morning, police tracked the license plate number to Morrison. He told them where to find Ott. Both were arrested.
Jury strategies
Gary Jones, Morrison's attorney, focused on Ott's credibility during his closing argument to the jury.
He claimed she had also lied on the stand about prostituting herself that night.
Assistant District Attorney Vel Young urged jurors to use their common sense and listed the evidence, a videotape, a car tag, Ott's testimony. She ridiculed the idea that, given the sequence of events, Morrison could have been ignorant of the crime.
The district attorney's office declined to comment on the verdict.