Editor’s note: This story contains graphic content.
A Henrico County judge this week allowed a woman formerly represented by Joe Morrissey’s law firm to withdraw a guilty plea amid allegations that the Richmond mayoral candidate pressured her for sex.
Kanika Shani Morris, 35, said Morrissey in February exposed himself to her in his law office and continued making advances through text messages.
When she repeatedly refused him, she said he handed over her case to another lawyer in his office, who pushed her into taking a plea deal — telling her that she hadn’t paid enough to have Morrissey himself represent her at the jury trial she had requested.
Morris, who was facing a felony charge for allegedly failing to return a rental car last year, cried throughout her sentencing hearing earlier this month, according to a transcript of the hearing. Now seven months pregnant, she spent two weeks of a 90-day sentence in jail before she was released Thursday afternoon.
“You always hear, ‘Joe Morrissey is a fighter.’ I heard it today,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an interview Thursday evening. “If anybody, I would hope that he would be able to help me. ... He’s more worried about what you can do for him sexually. What he can get out of a woman.”
Her description of her experience with Morrissey is consistent with text messages — some explicit — that she provided to the newspaper.
At a press conference in the foyer of his home Friday evening, Morrissey denied both exposing himself to Morris and playing any role in her decision to plead guilty in her case.
He said a female attorney in his law office was present during the entire meeting at which Morris said Morrissey made his initial advance. As evidence, he offered an email from the associate, Catherine Mullins, that said, “to my recollection, I was with her the entire time and she was never alone in Joe’s office.”
And as to Morris’ misgivings about her plea deal, he said that “at no time did she ever tell any attorney that she was dissatisfied with the firm’s service or with me.”
But on Friday evening, Morrissey acknowledged sending her text messages he described as “flirtatious.”
“And while I don’t recall the exact texts, I don’t deny them at all,” he said “What I do deny is ever, ever having any contact with her outside of my office after that first day with the exception (of) a preliminary hearing in June.”
After that, Morrissey’s wife, Myrna, asked members of the media to leave.
The text exchange with Morris and alleged encounter in Morrissey’s office took place less than three months after Joe and Myrna got engaged — and while Myrna was pregnant with their second child.
“I nicely asked you guys to stop the questioning, and to stop your video and to please exit my home,” she said, cutting Joe Morrissey off as he tried to answer additional questions. Their two young children were, at times, heard crying from another room. “I can’t ask you guys any nicer. Please.”
Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor said Friday that her office and Henrico police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of Morris’ guilty plea.
Taylor said the motion to withdraw the plea contends Morris was under duress, pressure and confusion.
“Part of that investigation is to find out did she in fact feel pressure from her (prior) counsel,” Taylor said.
When told that Morris said police had her cell phone and asked if the contents were being examined, Taylor said she could not comment on the details of a pending investigation. She said the investigation will look into anything that might be pertinent to her allegation regarding the pressure to enter a guilty plea.
Outside of any police investigation, Morris’ allegations raise questions about a possible violation of the professional guidelines that govern lawyers: Sexual conduct with clients violates ethics rules for lawyers established by the Virginia State Bar.
At the Thursday hearing, little was said in open court, but Judge Richard S. Wallerstein Jr. granted Morris’ motion to withdraw her guilty plea. Prosecutors asked to meet with Wallerstein in his chambers just before Morris’ case was heard.
Area defense attorneys said it’s unusual for a judge to allow a defendant to reverse a guilty plea after sentencing. A standard of “manifest injustice” must be met, they said.
Morris was released Thursday afternoon and, later that evening, she told The Times-Dispatch about her encounters with Morrissey during an hourlong interview. She also provided the newspaper with copies of text messages she says Morrissey sent her.
Earlier this year, Morris sought Morrissey’s help because she believed she was innocent of the charge against her and was worried her public defender wouldn’t take her case seriously enough.
“I decided I needed the help, and I believed that Morrissey could help me,” she said.
The two met for a consultation Feb. 1 at Morrissey’s Highland Springs law office. She waited for half an hour in his waiting room. “He came out, he shook my hand, I then proceeded into his office.”
They sat down, and he questioned her about the case, she said. “And he asked me how much money did I have?” she said.
She told him she had $500. “He told me he would charge me $800 to pick up the case, to take this case and I said, ‘OK, you know, that will work for me,’” she recounted.
Morris said Morrissey’s advances began moments after he agreed to defend her for what she recognized was a bargain price.
She recalled Morrissey getting up from his desk and walking toward her.
“He pulled his penis out and asked me to grab it,” she said. “I was scared to death. I froze up. I’ve come to you for help. I didn’t come to you to do those things. But I knew the price he had given me was a good price. It was a good offer.”
She said Morrissey was standing between her and the closed door to his office when he propositioned her, which made her extremely uncomfortable.
When she declined to touch him, she said he asked her to send “sexy pictures” later instead. She said she would and left his office.
That night at 9 p.m., she got the first of several text messages from Morrissey: “I never got those pics,” he wrote.
Morris replied “I got ya,” according to the record she provided.
Seven days later, having not received a response, Morris received a second message: “Hi Kanika. Never heard back from you...still need my help?”
The request for photos was repeated in subsequent messages. Each time, Morris brushed them off or made excuses about why she was unable to respond.
The situation escalated on Feb. 14 of this year — Valentine’s Day — when Morrissey asked her to come by his office.
“Make sure you wear fresh panties and shave your p**** nice n smooth,” the message said.
Other than to acknowledge the veracity of the text messages, Morrissey flatly denied every other aspect of Morris’ account on Friday.
“Nothing inappropriate that she alleges took place,” he said, citing his and his associate’s word that Morrissey wasn’t in the room alone with her.
Asked why the text messages appear to corroborate Morris’ account, Morrissey responded only by saying nothing actually articulated in the messages rises to the level of a crime.
“If I texted ‘I never got that pic,’ I’m assuming that she was saying to me that I’m going to send you some pics,” he said. “And the only thing I can think of is that I said, ‘I never got those pics.’
“But let’s be clear, what I’m accused of is a crime if I forced this person into a plea agreement. That is absolutely false.”
And why was he texting a client about panties and personal grooming?
Morrissey said the messages stemmed from the fact that Morris was a former girlfriend — an explanation Morris strongly denies.
“She was a brief girlfriend from eight years ago,” he said. “We had engaged in textual, uh, sending texts. That long ago. And that’s what I characterize it. That’s not what I’m charged with — committing a crime — forcing someone to plead guilty.”
As to Morris’ allegation that she was pressured to take a plea deal after she rebuffed Morrissey’s advances, Morrissey said his law firm was unaware of her concerns.
He also distanced himself from the handling of her case, saying the plea deal was arranged by a second associate in his law firm, Paul Galanides, who was present at Morrissey’s press conference and called the allegations “outrageous and 100 percent categorically false.”
Galanides said he reviewed the agreement with Morris two weeks before the hearing and she agreed the terms were “in her best interest after we reviewed the overwhelming evidence against her.”
The hope, he said, was that the judge would not sentence her to any time in jail.
Morris agrees that her alleged encounter with Morrissey this year is not her first. But she describes her prior experience in very different terms than he does.
“I was never his girlfriend. Oh my God, no,” she said. “He’s a liar.”
Instead, she described an experience similar to what she said took place this year in 2008, when she said Morrissey exposed himself to her in his office at the General Assembly.
She had sought his assistance having her voting rights restored, which were revoked when she was convicted of three felonies in 2005 for cashing a bad check — a charge she said was the result of her employer at the time paying her with a fraudulent paycheck.
In a subsequent incident at his private office — she could not recall if it was a campaign office he kept at the time or his current law office — he led her under the guise of finishing paperwork to an upstairs room where he had a bed, where he exposed himself to her, she said.
Morris, who was 28 at the time, said she never once engaged with Morrissey sexually.
Morrissey offered a different take: “That’s not true. We did.”
Morris, meanwhile, said she went back to Morrissey for legal help this year by mistake; she said a friend had referred her to another lawyer who she didn’t realize practiced at Morrissey’s law office. When she got there, she found out Morrissey would instead be her attorney.
“When he told me he could help me, honestly, I needed the help,” she said of Morrissey. “Maybe he’s not that same person. I really needed help. I needed assistance and I didn’t know how much that was going to cost me with anybody else. I felt like, maybe he’ll be able to help me.”
Morris said she still believed Morrissey would represent her up until she arrived in court this month for what she believed would be her jury trial.
Morrissey had texted her the morning of the hearing instructing her to be in court, but when she arrived, she was met by Morrissey’s associate, Galanides. She said he pulled her aside and told her that Morrissey said she needed to plead guilty.Galanides declined to answer questions Friday beyond his initial statement after Morrissey’s press conference concluded.
Without her knowledge, she said Morrissey’s firm already had arranged for a plea deal that reduced the crime to a misdemeanor. The sentence, not stipulated in the plea agreement, turned out to be 90 days in jail.
Morris became frantic when she learned she would be jailed for the final months of her pregnancy.
On Oct. 13, she wrote the judge a pleading letter and began cold-calling area lawyers. “My name is Kanika Morris and I am seven months pregnant,” she wrote in the letter, addressed “Dear Judge,” on file with Henrico Circuit Court.
She described herself as having a high-risk pregnancy and said she had a son with a chronic medical condition.
“I am request sir if you can please re-hear my case and or allow me to present myself to you,” she wrote. “I was represented poorly and had requested a jury and the attorney had something changed without my knowledge.”
Morrissey, who is the apparent front-runner in the Richmond mayor’s race, was disbarred in 2003 for unethical behavior and, while he has had his law license reinstated at the state level, is still prohibited from practicing in federal court.
In 2014, while serving in the General Assembly, he pleaded guilty to a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in connection with allegations that he had sex with a 17-year-old receptionist in his law office.
He served three months in jail on the charge, but because a judge granted him work release, he was able to campaign for re-election to the House of Delegates while serving his sentence.
He won and now speaks about how he’s the first person to win election from a jail cell in 200 years.
Morrissey married the woman at the center of that scandal, Myrna Morrissey, in June. They have had two children together, and Morrissey has featured his family prominently at campaign events and in campaign literature.
This week, Morrissey sent a campaign mailer that features Myrna front and center with Morrissey looking on from behind holding one of their children. “My husband knows how to win a tough fight,” the flier reads, attributing the quote to her.
As in Morris’ story, lewd text messages figured prominently in Morrissey’s courtship with Myrna: Among other things, prosecutors alleged Morrissey solicited nude photos from her, which he then sent to a friend to whom he boasted of his sexual exploits.
Despite his legal troubles, Morrissey remains immensely popular among some voters. He has led the race in every poll conducted to date.
As he was campaigning this week on a street corner on Brookland Park Boulevard, a constant stream of supporters stopped to wish him well, pose for photos with him and ask for campaign T-shirts.
His backers have brushed off his most recent legal run-in, with many saying the fact that he married the woman at the center of the scandal has made it a non-issue.
Asked about his propensity to get into trouble, Morrissey said at a debate in September that he has changed.
“There’s no question I have had some trials and tribulations and stubbed my toe on more than one occasion,” he said. But he asked voters to consider both his years of business experience and political experience.
He also said that, despite his “Fighting Joe” moniker, he has mellowed recently. “I think perhaps I’ve tempered things a little bit being a father and a husband.”
Morris’ search for a lawyer to reverse the work of Morrissey’s law firm led her to the law office of Nicholas Braswell, a former public defender now with the firm of Price Benowitz LLP.
It was Oct. 14, two days after she pleaded guilty and the day before she reported to jail.
“Somebody has to hear this,” she said. She walked across the street from the courthouse and showed up at his office without an appointment. “He’s going to probably think I’m crazy, I’m weird, but someone needs to hear this and the people need to know what’s going on.”
Braswell confirmed that he filed the motion for Morris to withdraw her guilty plea and that he did so free of charge. In it, he cited the “great duress, pressure and confusion” Morris was under at the time of her final hearing.
He said that at the public defender’s office and at his current firm, “It’s been both our credo and our mission ... to provide a good, strong competent legal representation to all people and especially those who need any kind of help.”
“In her particular situation, she came to me seeking our help and I did what I felt was the right thing to do,” said Braswell, who declined further comment.
At this point, Morris is being represented on a pro-bono basis by three lawyers: Braswell, Betty Layne DesPortes and Steven D. Benjamin.
“Anytime someone is accused of a criminal offense, they are vulnerable because it is such a stressful situation and so much is at stake, and if anyone takes advantage of that, that is not only reprehensible, but it should be actionable,” DesPortes said.
“We, as lawyers, for the sake of the profession and the justice system, we need to ensure that ... if someone is taken advantage of under those circumstances that we remedy it and do everything possible that we can to fix the situation for them.”
Staff writer Graham Moomaw contributed to this report.