Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 22, 1991.


Linda A. Dunham, a former Joe's Inn waitress, recalls Joe Morrissey's celebratory ballet when he picked up dinner a few nights after his 1989 election as Richmond prosecutor.

She says that Morrissey paid his bill at the packed Fan District eatery's bar entrance. But instead of just backing out, he paraded all the way through to the door on the restaurant side.

"He walked through this crowded room, beaming like he had a crown," Ms. Dunham said. "Then he crossed into an even more crowded room -- still carrying his takeout -- tiptoeing around piles of people. . . . We were, like, ' Joe, when's the swimsuit competition?' " It's a good thing Morrissey doesn't mind being watched.

In his 23 months in office, the 34-year-old commonwealth's attorney has become as much a personality as a prosecutor.

"The Fonz, with curly hair," chortles Corey Dietz of WRVQ-FM's "Q Morning Zoo."

Whether snuggling at Perly's Delicatessen or swilling at The Diamond, the single Morrissey proudly introduces his invariably stunning dates. He's building a four-story, Roman-columned house in Westover Hills West with a Jacuzzi and fireplace in the bathroom.

"And a large, double-headed shower," he added.

Morrissey thrust himself into the spotlight again Thursday, slugging a defense lawyer during a break in a drug trial -- then gleefully offering repeated play-by-plays for reporters.

"What now?" Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney William F. Rutherford said Thursday when asked if he'd heard about Morrissey.

"This just adds to the legend," Jeff McKee, co-host of WRXL-FM's morning show, said hours after the melee.

Morrissey says he was defending himself after lawyer David P. Baugh insulted him and pushed him. Baugh admits using the words but says Morrissey shoved first. The jury heard the fracas and the judge declared a mistrial.

That evening, Morrissey danced and shook hands at a Christmas bash thrown by power lawyer Michael Morchower. Then Morrissey spent an hour taking calls on BLAB-TV, a local cable station. With his tie still tightly knotted, he and a hat-clad date wound down with iced teas at the Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe. Later he drove to Chesterfield County for a live interview on WRIC Channel 8's 11 o'clock news.

Morrissey and Baugh were found in contempt of court; the penalty is to be decided Jan. 8. Morrissey also was held in contempt this summer and has appealed the five-day jail sentence for the second time. He expects a ruling in six months.

What if he winds up going to jail for one of the incidents?

"It would be another first in this office," he said without a flinch.

Morrissey, who makes $95,446 a year, says he regrets the brawl, which he attributes to his "Irish temper." That's the exact explanation he offered when he was a candidate and The Times-Dispatch asked him about three assault charges filed against him in the previous six years. He was never convicted.

In 1981, Morrissey was sued after writing a $500 rent check on a closed account (a mistake, he says). Last year the Virginia State Bar ordered him to take an ethics course after a complaint by a former client. Two months later, he underwent a daylong hearing on seven ethics allegations that eventually were dismissed.

The prosecutor has made the disputes part of his persona. When he and a buddy sent out invitations for a four-keg, $500-in-liquor party at Morrissey's house last month, they called themselves "two of Richmond's more quiet, reserved and non-controversial citizens."

Cary B. Bowen, a Richmond criminal defense lawyer, said Morrissey has even lost his cool playing pick-up basketball at the YMCA.

"It's someplace between depressing and disgusting," Bowen said of the hallway altercation. "It just puts a bad mark on all of us. Joe should be above that."

Morrissey defeated a 16-year incumbent in the Democratic primary two years ago, then took 39 percent of the vote in a four-way election. He's disarmingly candid about his ambition, promising that he'll serve at least another four- year term before a likely run for attorney general.

"There's this image of a hard-driving, water-skiing, motorcycle-riding James Dean," he said. "But there are also some things about me that are down-to-earth. I work out regularly. I've never had a cup of coffee, never had my first cigarette."

Nancy Greene, a physical-therapy student and free-lance model who broke up with Morrissey in July, says he was grouchy only two or three times in the two years they dated. She said she'd like him to be governor.

"I've never met a happier, more optimistic man in my life," Miss Greene said.

The two had lived together for more than a year and drew up the plans for the Westover Hills house together. Six weeks after the breakup, she got engaged to a sporting-goods store owner.

But Morrissey's style hasn't been cramped. He's since been seen with half a dozen women, including a TV reporter.

Joseph Dee (a family name) Morrissey, who went to Catholic high school, was already flamboyant at age 17. He was late for a date when state police radar showed him speeding as he drove toward his Annandale home.

Morrissey kept going. The trooper thought he should have stopped and charged him with eluding police.

"I knew he'd eventually catch me, and he did," Morrissey said.

He spent three hours in jail while he waited for his dad, a cardiologist, to pick him up. The charge was reduced to improper driving.

The next year, Morrissey became state AA wrestling champion among 105- pounders.

Morrissey majored in economics and minored in chemistry at the University of Virginia, where he showed a flair for politics in a course taught by campaign guru Larry J. Sabato.

When Dr. Sabato heard about last week's dust-up, he remembered a conversation he had with Morrissey at a reception during Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's inaugural weekend.

"I warned Joe when he took over," Dr. Sabato said. "Joe has a tendency to get into trouble. If you're in public office, you have to rein in your emotions. . . . Frequently you talk to students and their heads are shaking

' yes,' but I can see in their eyes that they're not taking it in. He's demonstrated that he didn't listen."

Dr. Sabato says Morrissey could have a bright future but is giving opponents a wealth of ammunition.

"The TV ads will write themselves," the professor said.

While attending Georgetown University law school at age 23, Morrissey ran for a House of Delegates seat in Fairfax County and came in fourth in a field of seven. In 1984, he went to work for his predecessor as Richmond commonwealth's attorney, Aubrey M. Davis Jr.

Kenneth E. Nickels, who joined the office the same month as Morrissey and now is a Chesterfield County assistant prosecutor, said Morrissey wasn't content with the traffic cases that go to junior lawyers.

He used to go up to colleagues and ask if they had felony assignments he could take on.

"Most brand-new attorneys don't feel comfortable trying a lot of jury cases," Nickels said.

Others in the office called Morrissey "Bobby Kennedy."

"I don't know whether it's because of his look or because he came from law school driving a BMW to his first job," Nickels said.

Morrissey was fired three years later after he was accused of cursing one of his former tenants and her lawyer in front of the staff. He built a lucrative private practice and unseated his old boss three years later.

David C. Eberhart III, an economic-crimes specialist who is one of 19 assistant commonwealth's attorneys, says Morrissey brought a law-firm-like efficiency to the office.

Every other Monday at 4 p.m., the staff meets in the conference room to discuss the latest decisions from the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

"In the old days, it was up to the initiative of each attorney," said Eberhart, who worked under Morrissey's predecessor for five years.

Others chafe at Morrissey edicts such as a requirement that all defendants' motions be answered in writing. Davis allowed oral presentations when appropriate.

"Joe's a stickler for form and substance," Eberhart said.

Morrissey has won 26 of 26 jury trials (not counting last week's mistrial) and has seized $1.4 million in drug dealers' assets since his election.

So he was angered by the howls this fall when he sought bids for a new desk, credenza, couch, bookcase, end table and chairs for his office.

"Is this a stickup without a gun . . . or does this guy deserve a really nice office at your expense?" McKee asked on XL-102.

"I said that at 7 a.m.," the deejay recalled. "By 7:15, he called."

The two chatted, listeners overwhelmingly supported Morrissey, and McKee invited him to do a monthly "Ask the Attorney" segment.

McKee says the prosecutor showed up for the first one last month "dressed like a stunt double from `thirtysomething.' He could've done a GQ call-in, as well."

The furniture, which wound up costing $9,000, is scheduled to arrive in three months.

Five days after the desk debate, the station took up Morrissey's cause when he said he'd like to move from his windowless office to a spacious corner room in the John Marshall Courts Building that's being used to store paint and traffic-court files.

XL sought volunteers for a "Help Joe Morrissey Move into a New Office Committee" and got 30 calls in 20 minutes. The prosecutor said that the judge who allots space in the courts building expects to make a decision next month.

Recommended for you

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.