On a Wednesday morning last December, 67-year-old Henri Morris sat slumped over in his chair at a defense table inside the federal courthouse in downtown Houston. Morris listened intently, occasionally shaking his head as his attorney quietly talked him through a plea deal he'd arranged with federal prosecutors.
The day before, jurors had listened to opening statements that previewed the nauseating details of the case against Morris: How Morris, former CEO of the local tech company Edible Software, asked younger female employees to accompany him on business trips; how Morris insisted on pouring the women drinks that tasted unusually, bitterly strong; how women who traveled with Morris kept blacking out; how some awoke disoriented and naked in hotel rooms alone with Morris; and how, upon executing a search warrant, FBI investigators found date-rape drugs in Morris's luggage and photos of nude, incapacitated women on his thumb drives.
In fact, Morris had already pled guilty to much if not all of what prosecutors were alleging. Just a year prior he'd signed a 22-page agreement admitting to the "drug-facilitated sexual assault" of several women, admitting to drugging and molesting employees on business trips to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Orleans over the course of two years. But that plea deal was contingent upon him serving no more than a year behind bars; after hearing testimony from some of Morris' victims in a pre-trial hearing, federal district court Judge Melinda Harmon tossed the agreement, sending the case to trial.
Anyone watching the first day of trial last December could see that Morris had a steep hill to climb in persuading a jury that his behavior with female employees was, in the words of his criminal attorney Dan Cogdell, a moral but not criminal failing.
By day two of trial, Morris and his legal team had apparently reconsidered. As Morris sat in his chair, with heaving breaths and shaking hands, his attorneys negotiated a plea deal: prosecutors would drop most of the charges against Morris if he admitted (again) to drugging and assaulting just one employee, named in court records as "A.F." (we're not using her real name).
"Ten years," Morris muttered to himself as he grimaced, repeating the maximum sentence that would be allowed under his plea deal. Morris was so visibly distraught that reporters in the courtroom wondered whether he was going to vomit.
We still don't know how much time, if any, Morris will spend behind bars; over the past two months, his sentencing hearing has been reset no less than four times. On Friday, a judge again postponed Morris's sentencing until April 8.
In the meantime, Morris is stuck in yet another awkward legal position, defending himself and his company against a civil lawsuit filed by A.F., the young woman he's already admitted to drugging and assaulting in federal criminal court.
It's a situation that calls for some creative lawyering, and in the fight to avoid paying the woman, Morris's legal team has deployed arguments that essentially underscore the confusion and emotional damage that plagues victims of drug-facilitated sexual assault. In Morris's efforts to dismiss the civil case against him and his former company, there's a there's a simple unifying question buried under all the legal minutiae: why would a true victim wait so long to come forward?
A.F. sent Edible Software her resume and cover letter in the spring of 2011 after she saw a LinkedIn posting for a marketing and sales job. She was in her mid-twenties, had been out of work for a couple months and was only one credit away from getting her bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Texas.
A.F. needed the work, but she wasn't confident she'd get the job after speaking to Henri Morris over the phone days later. Morris told her he wasn't convinced she was qualified, but that something about her resume and cover letter "intrigued" him, A.F. later recalled in a court deposition.
By early May, just a couple of weeks after she started working with Edible, which sells software to help food wholesalers track inventory, Morris asked A.F. if she'd travel with him to meet with some clients on the East Coast. A.F. didn't even understand how the software worked yet; Morris told her it would be a "learning experience."
After the two arrived in Philadelphia on a late flight, Morris was eager to grab a drink at the hotel's concierge lounge but it was closed. So instead, A.F. and Morris went to a nearby pub for some bar food. Morris gave A.F. a hard time when she ordered a glass of wine instead of "a real drink," she said in a court deposition.
After meeting with clients in Newark for most of the next day, the two went back to a hotel. Morris again wanted to grab drinks in the concierge lounge before heading out to dinner in Manhattan. A.F. sipped from a glass of wine even though Morris urged her to have a cocktail.
"Henri was always very persistent that I have a real cocktail, and I like to drink wine," A.F. said in a court deposition. "And I don't really do very well with real liquor...hard liquor."
Before heading out to Manhattan, Morris insisted he make A.F. a "to-go" drink in a twelve-ounce hotel coffee cup to sip on the drive. She eventually acquiesced, asking for vodka with soda. "And it was so strong, like so strong I couldn't even drink it," she said in a deposition. "It tasted like I was drinking a cup of vodka." She brought a bottle of soda, hoping the sugar would cut the bitter taste of what she thought was alcohol.
By the time she got into Morris's rental car, A.F. was surprised by how tipsy she was already feeling, but wrote it off. It was a long workday, she thought, and she hadn't eaten much. Maybe she just needed dinner.
At some point during the drive, things went from tipsy to hazy. A.F. can't remember which tunnel they took to get into the city. She knows they walked around Times Square, but can't remember where they parked. She remembers the weight of Morris's hands on her shoulders guiding her around the city. She can recall brief flashes of detail -- like a mural in a subway station -- but most everything else is muted or absent from her memory.
A.F.'s next clear memory, however, is of waking up in her hotel room, naked on the bed with blankets and pillows covering her face. She thought she heard the sound of a cell phone snapping pictures, looked up and saw Morris was in the room with her.
Morris insisted he wasn't taking pictures of her, but A.F. grabbed his Blackberry and fumbled with it for a few seconds; she was so disoriented she had trouble working the screen. Morris told her everything was fine. A.F. told him to leave the room and slammed the door.
Once Morris was gone, A.F. noticed bruises on her arms and scratches on her hips. She felt violated. In a court deposition, A.F. said she felt sore in her "female regions," but didn't think Morris managed to have sex with her.
"What in the world just happened?" she thought to herself before passing out again.
When FBI special agent Glenn Gregory first called A.F. on her cell phone in December 2011, he didn't divulge much about his investigation. Gregory told her only that authorities were looking into Morris's relationships with some of his female employees.
A.F. didn't stay with Edible Software for long. The morning after her assault, still dazed and nauseous, she struggled to remember bits and pieces from the night before as Morris drove them to meet with another client. She must have lost control at some point, she thought, but she had no idea how. "I knew it was a mistake, and I knew it was wrong, but I didn't understand how I got from Point A to Point B," she said in a court deposition.
Morris, she said, kept telling her that there was nothing wrong with what happened. "I really like you," he told her, claiming his marriage was already ending. He protested when A.F. told him she was going to start looking another job. She ultimately left the company in August 2011, less than four months after she was hired. She was depressed and embarrassed for most of her short time with the company. Here's what she said in a court deposition:
"I was so ashamed. And it just felt like the worst thing that anybody could ever do, ever. Regardless of the state I was in, I just had so much guilt and so, like I was so disgusted with myself, and i just wanted it to go away."
While A.F. never told anyone at Edible about the assault, she says she did try to talk with company executives about what she called Morris's inappropriate behavior toward female employees -- the excessive drinking, the inappropriate touching and comments that made other women uncomfortable -- but the complaints fell on deaf ears.
"Well, that's just the way he is," A.F. recalled Trevor Morris, Henri Morris's son and then senior vice president for the company, saying when she brought it up with him. "Just ignore him." (Trevor Morris took over as CEO for Edible Software sometime after his father was arrested and charged in federal criminal court).
In a deposition, Morris's civil attorney, Gregg Rosenberg, asked A.F. why she didn't report her abuse to Edible's HR department, which was then overseen by Henri Morris's other son, Allan Morris. "Who would I report it to?" A.F. asked. "His son in HR?"
It appears the FBI investigation gained new traction after authorities heard from another of Henri Morris's victims, Kelly (not her real name), who traveled with him to New York City in January 2012, just three weeks after she'd joined Edible. Shortly after landing at LaGuardia, Morris rented a car and drove the two to a nearby Marriott hotel.
Before heading out to dinner in Manhattan that night, Morris wanted to meet Kelly at the hotel bar's concierge lounge for a drink. He poured her a "to-go" cup to sip in the car on the drive into the city. She lost consciousness three or four sips in.
A few hazy memories lingered - a disoriented search for her hotel room, Morris standing over her in the room, telling her to lie on the bed until she felt better.
Worried she'd been drugged, Kelly eventually got in touch with Gregory at the FBI. The next month, Morris again asked her to accompany him on a business trip. By this time, the FBI had enough probable cause to execute a search warrant. When Morris showed up at Bush Intercontinental with Kelly on February 27, 2012, agents were waiting. Inside Morris's luggage agents found what prosecutors have since called Morris' "special little rape kit": a label-less prescription bottle containing pills commonly used as date-rape drugs (Ambien, Oxazepam and Benedryl), three small Jack Daniel's bottles filled with clear sugar-water (which prosecutors believe Morris used to dissolve the pills and mask the bitter taste of the drugs), and two different types of erectile dysfunction pills.
A search of Morris's computer thumb drives later turned up numerous photographs of nude, incapacitated women -- including A.F. and Kelly.
Sometime later, after agents intercepted Morris at the airport, A.F. sat down to meet with the FBI agent. What Morris had really done to her finally began to sink in as Gregory told her about the photographs and knock-out drugs. In December 2013, she filed a lawsuit against Morris and Edible Software in civil court, arguing both Morris and his company were liable for the invasion of her privacy and assault.
With Morris's civil trial fast approaching, his lawyer Gregg Rosenberg filed a motion to dismiss the case in Harris County court last month. In that motion, and in court depositions, Rosenberg hints at Morris's simple defense: A.F. should have come forward with claims that she was assaulted much earlier.
First, Rosenberg argued that A.F. blew a two-year statute of limitations for filing her invasion-of-privacy claims, saying she first suspected she was assaulted and had nude photos taken of her back in May 2011 (Rosenberg's motion conveniently fails to mention that A.F. didn't know of the date-rape drugs or photographs found in Morris's possession until much later).
Second, in order to shield Morris's company from damages, Rosenberg has attempted to recast A.F.'s complaints -- that her boss drugged, sexually assaulted, and took nude photographs of her on a business trip -- as a workplace sexual harassment case.
"Courts have traditionally defined 'unwelcome sexual harassment' as 'sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwelcome in the sense that it is unsolicited and is undesirable or offensive to the employee,'" Rosenberg wrote in his motion to dismiss the case or rule on summary judgment in favor of Morris and Edible.
In his argument, Rosenberg cites the 2010 state Supreme Court case Waffle House v. Williams, which ruled that victims of sexual harassment must work within the labor code and file a formal complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission's civil rights division within 180 days of being harassed. Here, the distinction between sexual assault and sexual harassment is a rather important one -- under the court's 2010 ruling, sex harassment suits are awarded only relatively low settlements, as opposed to the larger sums a victim can win under an assault claim in civil court.
It's a legal argument that plays off the very nature of drug-facilitated sexual assault. If Morris's victims were too groggy to reliably recall what actually happened to them, then perhaps good lawyering can push a case into the realm of sexual harassment rather than sexual assault. The argument also underscores the very reason drug-facilitated assault cases can be difficult, if not entirely impossible to prosecute in criminal court without plenty of hard, compelling evidence -- for instance, in Morris's case a "rape kit" and photos of naked, unconscious women.
A.F.'s attorney Jeffrey Todd, who declined to talk publicly about the case before it goes to trial, wrote in court filings that the "effort to characterize her (A.F.'s) claims as workplace complaints is frankly both cynical and delusional. ... their mischaracterization of her claims as based solely upon 'unwelcome sexual harassment' would be laughable, were it not so offensive."
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If the parties don't settle out of court, A.F.'s case against Morris will soon go to trial (it was scheduled last week but, like Morris's sentencing hearing, has since been postponed). And if that happens, judging from how Rosenberg questioned A.F. in court depositions, there's a strong likelihood A.F.'s hazy memory will be used against her.
Rosenberg: "So...you're not in a position to tell us whether or not what happened between you and Henri that night was consensual."
A.F.: "I did not consent to those pictures being taken."
Rosenberg: "How do you know? You don't remember them being taken."
A.F.: "The photos were taken without my knowledge. Whether I was drugged by Henri, I'm not sure. But I can tell you in my life, I've never taken pictures like that. I can tell you I would never consent to taking pictures like that. I would never consent to having a sexual relationship with my boss, being in a sound state of mind."
Rosenberg: "My question to you, and what I'm examining you about is to determine how you know, since you don't remember, what you consented to and what you didn't consent to."
A local state judge denied Morris's motion to dismiss the case last month. And last week Rosenberg filed an unsuccessful appeal with the state's First Court of Appeals, arguing that the claims against Morris -- again, to which he's already pleaded guilty in federal court -- are tantamount to sexual harassment as defined by Texas labor law.
"It may not be right, and it may not be fair, but it's the law," Rosenberg told us last week.