On the day his murder trial was to begin, Joseph Eli Morrow defied the advice of his attorney and pleaded no contest to killing his wife 16 years ago in their Menlo Park home.
The last-minute plea agreement of 25 years to life in prison ended Morrow’s long legal journey, which included a decade on the run in the Philippines, where he was arrested in 2003. Morrow, 59, pleaded no contest to killing his wife Donna, 37, during a confrontation on Dec. 19, 1991. He then buried her body on the family’s 36-acre property above Los Gatos and vanished two years later, prosecutors said.
The skeletal remains of his wife were found in September 2003. Though a cause of death has never been determined, investigators and prosecutors believe she was strangled after telling her husband she wanted to divorce him, prosecutors said.
Joseph Morrow’s attorney Robert Courshon told San Mateo Superior Court Judge Craig Parsons on Tuesday that he advised his client to go to trial, but Morrow elected to spare one of his daughters from testifying against him.
Morrow and his wife, Donna, had a son and three daughters, now in their 20s, Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. One of the daughters, then 9, heard the couple’s final argument in 1991, and was scheduled to testify, Wagstaffe said.
Under the plea agreement, Morrow will receive 15 years to life for the second-degree murder of his wife, and 10 years for seven counts of assault.
The assaults against his wife span more than 10 years of the couple’s marriage and include Morrow ripping out his wife’s hair in front of her family, slamming her face into a car windshield, kicking her and battering her on the day of her death, Wagstaffe said.
The plea agreement also allows Morrow — who had been facing first-degree murder charges with the special circumstance of financial gain — to avoid the possibility of life without the possibility of parole.
Wagstaffe said Morrow’s first wife was prepared to testify that in 1974, he knocked her down a flight of stairs and choked her into unconsciousness at the mention of her taking half his assets in their divorce.
Prosecutors said Morrow, a former president of a paper company who once beat up an elderly man on a golf course, likely accepted the plea after realizing how many people were going to testify about his violent tendencies.