DEER LODGE – A Montana State Prison inmate was found guilty Thursday of murdering a fellow prisoner following a three-day trial at the Powell County Courthouse in Deer Lodge.
Shaun Duncan Morrison, 30, could spend the rest of his life in prison after a 12-person jury found that he killed 53-year-old Julio Santiago Jr. with a weapon fashioned out of two razor blades tied to a pen.
The jury returned its verdict after two hours, ultimately convicting Morrison of felonies deliberate homicide committed with a deadly weapon and possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner. A motion to dismiss the possession charge was previously rejected Wednesday.
Morrison attacked Santiago in his prison cell the evening of Sept. 4, 2011, over a pair of stolen earphones. The bloody assault included punching, choking and cutting Santiago’s face and neck.
Morrison never testified, never spoke and showed little emotion during the trial. He remains at the prison, where he now faces a maximum life sentence. The state is not pursuing the death penalty.
The defense attempted to argue that Morrison’s troubling past, coupled with the nature of prison culture, led to extreme emotional and mental stress under the circumstances. But jurors rejected the notion that his stress was a mitigating circumstance in the killing.
Dr. Bowman Smelko, licensed psychologist, testified about Morrison’s “chaotic” upbringing and history of mental illness. Morrison grew up socially underdeveloped, Smelko said, and struggled with processing and expressing emotions.
As a child, Morrison killed family pets and acted aggressively toward others, Smelko said. In another instance, he once set fire to the mattress where his father slept.
Morrison has been hospitalized a number of times over the years to try and gain a handle on his self-destructive, compulsive behaviors. Diagnoses have ranged from severe depression to personality and conduct disorders.
When Morrison gets an idea in his head, “It sticks there until he takes care of it the best way he knows how,” Smelko said.
Another expert witness, James Aiken, whose extensive background in corrections spans more than 40 years, testified on the culture and conditions of prison life.
Both inmates and officers are constantly assessing their level of safety in prison, Aiken said. Especially for Morrison, who had recently transferred to Close Unit I from the more restrictive maximum security custody, the new freedoms and inmates likely heightened his anxiety.
In addition, inmates treasure their possessions as their only link to an environment that’s halfway civil, Aiken said. A theft is interpreted as disrespect, and prisoners feel like they need to handle their own business without snitching to the guards.
“Once you become weak, you become vulnerable,” he said. “You’re like a wounded deer in the forest. And the wolves will surround you.”
While Aiken said he does not condone Morrison’s behavior, he added it is understandable. Morrison’s attorney, public defender Tom Bartleson, told the jury this evidence taken all together clearly shows Morrison was in a strange mental and emotional state.
The prosecution, however, countered that convicts are not immune to society’s laws in prison, and urged the jury not to abandon reason in its deliberation.
Their evidence included a recorded interview between Morrison and criminal investigator Jeff Crowe, in which Morrison calmly detailed how and why he killed Santiago. An hour-long security video matched that sequence of events.
County Attorney Lewis Smith also presented the blood-stained clothing Morrison wore the evening of the incident, including a sweatshirt, pants and shoes.
Dr. Gary Dale, state medical examiner, ruled Santiago died from a combination of homicidal violence. His testimony detailed graphic injuries which appeared consistent with the weapon Morrison made and concealed just prior to confronting Santiago over the earphones.
Upon the jury’s verdict, Smith told The Montana Standard he was pleased with the outcome.
“The jurors considered everything very carefully,” Smith said. “I feel glad for (Santiago), that he has now received justice. I do feel for his family.”
Butte District Judge Brad Newman, presiding in place of Judge Ray Dayton, ordered a presentence investigation before setting the date for sentencing.
Santiago’s death was the first murder at the prison in 16 years.
— Reporter George Plaven may be reached at 496-5597, or via email at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/@George_Plaven.