A woman who accused defense attorney Joe Morrissey of sexual misconduct pleaded no contest on Tuesday to the original charge that led her to seek out Morrissey’s law firm for legal representation.
Kanika Shani Morris, 36, pleaded no contest in Henrico County Circuit Court to a felony charge of failing to return a rental car in 2015. Morris’ plea came on the day that a jury trial was scheduled to begin. Following a recommendation from prosecutors, Judge John Marshall sentenced Morris to five years of jail time, but he suspended all of that sentence.
The judge said Morris must pay $7,280 in restitution to the AutoMax rental company for the 2013 Hyundai Sonata that prosecutors said she kept for several months beyond her rental agreement.
The woman’s case became a focus of attention in the days before the November 2016 Richmond mayoral race in which Morrissey was a candidate.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in an Oct. 29, 2016, article that Henrico Judge Richard S. Wallerstein Jr. that week allowed Morris to withdraw a previous guilty plea in the case — which led to a 90-day jail sentence — amid her allegations that Morrissey pressured her for sex. She served two weeks of the 90-day sentence before she was released.
The motion to withdraw, filed by her attorney, Nicholas Braswell, said she was under “great duress, pressure and confusion” when she made her plea to a misdemeanor charge of not returning the vehicle. Braswell added that Morris didn’t fully understand the implications of entering the plea. Morris has said she was pressured to take the plea deal when she rebuffed Morrissey’s advances.
Morrissey acknowledged sending explicit text messages to Morris, calling them “flirtatious.” But he said Morris never indicated to attorneys at his firm that she was dissatisfied with their legal work on her behalf, adding that he had no part in her decision to plead guilty in the case. On the day of her plea in 2016, Morris was represented by Morrissey’s law partner, Paul Galanides, who has said he reviewed the plea deal with Morris two weeks before she entered it and that she agreed with its terms.
Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor investigated the situation involving Morrissey’s interaction with Morris. Taylor said days before the 2016 election that “while what he did was wrong and unethical, there will not be a prosecution.”
Last year, Morrissey filed a lawsuit alleging that two Richmond defense attorneys, Taylor and The Times-Dispatch conspired to “completely and utterly destroy” his bid in the 2016 election.
The Hanover County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office was appointed as a special prosecutor in Morris’ criminal case after Taylor recused her office from the case.
Alison Linas, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Hanover, said at the hearing Tuesday that Morris kept the car, which she rented on July 25, 2015, for months beyond her rental agreement. It was not recovered until Dec. 3 that year by a towing company. It located the vehicle at a Glen Allen address that was different than the eastern Henrico address she gave AutoMax when she rented the vehicle, Linas said.
The money Morris owes AutoMax is for the daily rental car fee not paid while she had the vehicle, plus towing costs.
Braswell said his client was going “through a lot” at the time she had the rental car, adding that she had made efforts to get the vehicle back to AutoMax.