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A registered sex offender has received a life sentence for the brutal murder of a professional poker player in Michigan in 2020.
Jeffrey Morris, 62, was convicted on Oct. 7 of both first-degree murder and felony murder with an underlying charge of second-degree criminal sexual conduct in the death of professional poker player Susie Zhao, 33. His life sentence, handed down on Thursday, was mandatory, the Oakland Press reported.
Morris did not make a statement about the crime at his sentencing, but told the court he plans to appeal.
"This time, I’m not gonna say anything,” he told the judge, according to the Press. “There’s a lot I’d like to say. This time I’m not gonna say anything — I’ll wait till I come back for an appeal and begin again.”
It is unclear on what legal basis Morris plans to appeal. The jury convicted him within an hour of beginning deliberations after a four-day trial.
Zhao, whose professional name was "Susie Q," grew up in Michigan and earned a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University and was a professional poker player from 2009 until her final appearance at the World Series of Poker in 2017, Oxygen.com previously reported, earning around $200,000 over the course of her career.
She spent much of her professional life living on the West Coast but returned to Michigan shortly before her death, splitting her time between her mother's home and the Sherwood Motel in Waterford Township. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia as an adult, but kept the diagnosis a secret from her friends, who became concerned she'd begun using drugs, according to Detroit ABC affiliate WXYZ.
She was supposed to have spent the weekend of her murder in July 2020 camping with a friend, Michelle Lagrou and Lagrou's then-3-year-old daughter. But instead of picking Zhao up at her mom's home on Saturday, Zhao directed Lagrou to a "shady motel" — the Sherwood — and then to a McDonald's across the street, Lagrou told the station. During the drive north on July 11, Lagrou said Zhao behaved so erratically that she feared for her own daughter's safety, and Zhao's mother came and picked her up on July 12.
Morris allegedly told police that he then picked Zhao up on the night of July 12 and, at around 9:30 p.m., the two checked back into the same room at the Sherwood Motel in which she had stayed before her interrupted girl's trip. He claimed the two got alcohol and she left around midnight, but evidence presented at trial refuted his account.
Prosecutors instead presented evidence that Zhao's phone remained in the motel room until 5:00 a.m., which is when surveillance video shows Morris also left and drove to the park where Zhao's body was found at around 8:00 a.m. on July 13.
Police say she'd been zip tied, sexually assaulted with a large object and, still alive, set on fire with gasoline and left to die. She was burned over 90 percent of her body and had extensive trauma to her genitals.
Morris was arrested on July 31, 2020. In his car, police found a bloody fitted sheet and a blood-stained baseball bat.
At trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Morris bought a plastic gas can — similar to the one found melted under Zhao's body — shortly before the murder, and was caught on a grocery store surveillance camera stealing zip ties and petroleum jelly just before midnight. They also presented extensive evidence that Morris — a convicted sex offender who service time for a 1989 conviction for criminal sexual conduct in the third degree by force and coercion, according to Law & Crime — had an extensive history of seeking out violent pornography involving Asian women. They alleged his sexual assault and murder of Zhao was the fulfillment of a sexual fantasy.
Morris had previously been convicted of a myriad of charges, including domestic violence, assault with intent to rob while armed and failure to comply with sex offender reporting duties.
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