Jennifer “Jenni” Morse may be relatively new to Hopkins County, but she’s by no means “new” to law. In fact, while working in Dallas, she prosecuted the first “continual sexual assault” case to get a verdict of life without parole since the statute was implemented.
District Attorney Will Ramsay recruited Morse away from the Dallas District Attorney’s Office to join his staff as assistant district attorney for the Eighth Judicial District. The two had worked together for several years in Dallas, both part of the “large family” there. They started working for the Dallas DA within 1 1/2 year of one another.
“After I took over in January, she and I were talking on the phone and started discussing the possibility of her coming out here and joining the office. That would be a huge step for her to leave the high position in Dallas and move to a rural East Texas community. It would also mean almost a 50 percent cut in pay. However, I kept telling her that she would love working hand-in-hand with our law enforcement and being able to directly see the fruits of her labor in the community,” said Ramsay.
“When Will told me about the opening, I jumped on it. I’m very, very excited to be here. I worked with Will in Dallas. He’s a great prosecutor and friend,” said Morse.
“She agreed to come out here, but she was very noncommittal about how long she would stay. I didn't know if I'd have her for three years or 30 days,” Ramsay said. “We agreed that when she joined the office, she would primarily practice in the office as opposed to the courtroom. In other words, because of the work she was accomplishing, I would be able to spend my time with [Assistant District Attorney] Peter Morgan in the courtroom trying cases and working the docket.”
Morse attributed the smoothness for the transition in January to a the team effort among all staff at the DA’s office.
Ramsay credits Morse for the improved efficiency with which the district attorney’s office now operates.
“Jenni is one of the most organized and driven people I know,” he explained. “Honestly, it drives me crazy at times. Like when she comes in and starts trying to organize my chaotic desk. I have to tell her, ‘You be you and let me be me.’ We laugh because, most of the time, when she is suggesting to me different ideas to streamline the office and pulling me out of my comfort zone, I want to kick her out of the room. But, when I take the time to step back and look at the big picture, she's usually right. I believe that this office moves more efficiently right now than it has in a long time. That is a direct reflection of Jenni's vision and work ethic.”
Since she started work with Ramsay and the 8th Judicial District, Morse has taken what were hundreds of case files submitted to the district attorney’s office that had yet to be prepared or presented to a grand jury and caught them up. She focused on case management, going through each file, finding out what was needed and seeing that everything was in order. The grand jury load now, instead of knee-high stacks of cases ranging from 2010 to 2013 each month, is a much shorter stack of new cases — with a few older cases left still needing to be finished up.
The case load went from 100 cases in April down to about 60 in May and 45 in June.
“At this point, she basically handles all the cases until they are indicted by the grand jury. So, when detectives are putting cases together, they will come see Jenni and she will work with them throughout the investigation process,” Ramsay explained. “Once a case is finalized and brought to our office by a law enforcement agency, Jenni works with the ladies in the office to have the case ready for presentment to the Grand Jury at light speed. That may not sound like much, but there is quite a bit of work to make that happen. Because of this, instead of there being a backlog of files, the cases are presented to the Grand Jury in a timely fashion. This allows cases to be resolved much faster, which saves the counties money.”
Morse is now working on asset forfeiture cases, getting some older cases caught up there, as well.
“She has also attacked the asset forfeiture docket, which had been languishing. Although her experience has been in criminal law, she came into the office and was able to clean up a lot of the civil forfeiture cases which resulted in money and vehicles being disbursed to law enforcement agencies,” Ramsay noted.
Morse also sat in second chair with Ramsay on a few cases — including an assault of public servant case and a sexual assault case.
“During the campaign, I realized that people wanted crime to be dealt with appropriately. They also wanted us to reduce the backlog. That's what we've been able to do and, Lord willing, will continue to do for the 8th Judicial District. We want the word to get out that if you commit a felony in the 8th Judicial District, you will see consequences and you will see them quickly. Jenni is extremely committed to this philosophy and she is the reason that these cases arrive in a court of law in a timely manner. When I am dealing with a case in court, I know that I can rely on the way she has handled the matters prior to indictment,” Ramsay added.
“If there are questions, he can bounce them off me, or I can assist,” Morse noted.
Morse’s passion for law began in her youth in Wichita, Kan. Her father was a civil contract attorney and a grandparent always half-jokingly told her that as much as she liked to argue, she would one day become an attorney too — and was right.
However, unlike her dad, Morse knew contract law was not for her. She was more interested in the criminal side of the law. She really enjoyed visiting her cousin, a lieutenant over homicide in Wichita at work.
“He really influenced me. While I was home on vacation from college, I did ride-a-longs. It was real eye-opener. I enjoy law enforcement,” Morse said.
While being a cop wan’t Morse’s passion, being an attorney was a natural fit, as is prosecution. So, she went to school in Tennessee, then to law school in Dallas at Southern Methodist University.
Morse’s days with Dallas D.A.’s office started with a 30-hour professional internship. She did a fellowship in the family violence division and applied to graduate school. Two weeks after taking the bar, she went to work conditionally and was officially hired in November of that year after passing. She worked at Dallas County D.A.’s Office for 8 1/2 years, leaving as the chief prosecution in the 194th Judicial District felony court.
“She worked her way up through the ranks, spending time in the felony courts and the child abuse division. When she left this year, she was the chief prosecutor in one of the felony district courts,” said Ramsay.
She spent just shy of 2 1/2 years in the child abuse division, but the rest was spent in felony trial courts with a focus on criminal trials.
The child abuse cases, after two years, take a toll, Morse noted.
“I really love kids. It was tough on me,” Morse said. “From a human-kind perspective, you want kids to forget what happened to them. As a prosecutor, you want — need — every detail repeated. It’s heartbreaking. For a verdict, you want to send most away for life. The new continuous sexual assault of a child statute, I was the first to get life without parole in Dallas. We had quite a few big verdicts.”
She said receiving a guilty verdict with the maximum allowable sentence set, emotionally, leaves a prosecutor feeling the “highest of highs.” Likewise, when a defendant is found not guilty, especially on child abuse cases, as a prosecutor she’s felt “the lowest of the low” because she felt she was “not able to help a child.” In a way, it’s like victimizing them twice, making them relive a traumatizing experience by talking about it, then not being able to see the alleged abuser removed from their lives for the maximum period of time allowable by law, Morse explained.
“It’s been my most dedicated work as a D.A. I put my heart and soul into it. It’s also the most taxing,” Morse said, adding that’s the reason staff usually only serve in the child abuse division for a short period of time. “There’s a limited shelf life for your sanity.”
Morse has prosecuted all manner of criminal cases from state jail felony cases up to what some refer to as “mini caps,” those in which a life sentence might be sought but not the death penalty. She’s worked everything from thefts to stolen cars, home and building burglaries, rape cases and the most violent crimes.
“She has sat with me on two trials here in Hopkins County. In Dallas, she tried a lot of cases and I respect her opinion on matters in the courtroom,” Ramsay said.
She’s glad to work with law enforcement as cases occurred in Hopkins County, assisting in the investigative process from an attorney’s standpoint.
“If an officer calls from the side of the road needing something, I can help. Will helps them, but I can too,” she said of her willingness to take her turn “on call” to assist when documents or advice is needed from an attorney. Ramsay limits that.
“She is loved by Hopkins County law enforcement and she really loves them. She thrives on being a part of a team. She would do anything for officers and for the victims of crime,” the district attorney said.
“It is very reassuring to know we have someone like her, with that much experience, who understands what the officers are going through and is available 24 hours to assist our cases,” said Lewis Tatum, chief investigator for Hopkins County Sheriff’s Office.
“I feel I can make an impact,” Morse said. “I enjoy Sulphur Springs. Everyone’s so welcoming. This size town is more my speed. There are festivals, things on the square — it’s a small town. Hopefully, I can have a positive impact.”
“She recently bought a house and that was a very happy day for me,” Ramsay said. “It shows that she is growing some roots here in Sulphur Springs. The people of Sulphur Springs will benefit greatly from having a prosecutor like Jenni Morse looking out for their interests. Even more, she's a great person to have in the community. She's a keeper.”
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