A professor at the University of Texas who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of strangling his girlfriend to the point that she saw “stars” remains on the job despite a school policy condemning domestic violence as prohibited conduct that it “will not tolerate,” an American-Statesman investigation has found.
Richard A. Morrisett had also been accused of a second violent incident that sent his girlfriend to the hospital, and of repeatedly violating a court order to stay away from her. After learning of the charges against Morrisett, university officials placed him on paid administrative leave for 18 days in August 2016 while it conducted a review that included interviews of faculty members and students.
“The review found no relation between how the professor acted in this situation and how he acted on campus, and as a result he was allowed to continue his teaching and lab activities” in UT’s College of Pharmacy, university spokesman J.B. Bird said in an email.
Records obtained by the Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act show that Morrisett was not sanctioned by the university even though administrators concluded that he had violated a policy requiring employees to notify a supervisor of criminal charges. The rule states that failing to report “is a violation of policy and will lead to disciplinary action.” Administrators were alerted to Morrisett’s case by campus police.
Morrisett, 57, a tenured faculty member whose research includes alcohol-related brain disorders, had been facing three third-degree felony charges, each of which carried a prison term of up to 10 years.
He pleaded guilty in February to the first incident in an agreement with the Travis County district attorney’s office that resolved all of the cases without requiring him to spend time behind bars. He was sentenced to four years of community supervision, a kind of probation, and ordered to take a class on avoiding family violence, to undergo counseling, to complete 100 hours of community service and to have no contact with the victim.
Morrisett said in an email that he had no comment on the advice of legal counsel. The Statesman is not naming the victim, who could not be reached for comment, due to the nature of the crime.
The case comes to light at a time of heightened concern at colleges and universities, and more broadly across American society, about sexual assault and interpersonal violence. UT has sought emerged as something of a leader in studying and addressing such matters. Its “Handbook of Operating Procedures,” a set of rules and policies, includes domestic violence, physical assault and dating violence on a list of “prohibited conduct” that it “will not tolerate.”
Victims in strangulation cases more likely to be killed
Thanks in part to research showing that victims of nonfatal strangulation are at heightened risk of eventually being killed by their intimate partners, Texas and more than 40 other states classify a domestic assault involving such strangulation as a felony.
“It appears that the vast majority of women who have been killed in intimate partner homicides have been previously strangled by their partner,” said Casey Gwinn, president of the California-based Alliance for Hope International, whose Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention works with prosecutors, health care workers and others.
In contrast with UT’s approach in Morrisett’s case, Texas A&M University disciplined a faculty member who was convicted in March 2016 of assaulting his wife, a misdemeanor. Yong Chen, who teaches finance, was allowed to keep his job. But he was stripped of the Gina and William H. Flores professorship, and a planned promotion from associate professor to full professor was put on hold. He was deemed ineligible for any awards or honors from the university for four years.
UT has come down hard on student athletes who have been charged with violent crimes against women.
In 2014, UT expelled football players Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander after they were charged with sexual assault for an on-campus incident involving a female student. Sanders went to trial and was found not guilty. Charges against Meander were dismissed.
That same year, Longhorns basketball player Martez Walker was barred from campus after his misdemeanor arrest for hitting his girlfriend. Walker was arrested again for criminal trespassing when he violated the order by returning to his dorm room. He was suspended from the team after the first arrest and left the school after the second.
“Employees have rights, guaranteed by law and our policies, that differ substantially from the rights of students to participate in voluntary activities such as intercollegiate athletics,” said Bird, the UT spokesman.
As for not disciplining Morrisett for failing to report his arrest, Bird said the university would take action on such a failure if it believed a person knew of the requirement.
Victim: Second attack prompted by indictment
Few people outside of senior administrators at UT were aware of Morrisett’s case until Wednesday, when Pharmacy Dean M. Lynn Crismon sent an email to faculty, students and staff in the College of Pharmacy alerting them to the Statesman’s impending article.
“We took Dr. Morrisett’s criminal behavior very seriously and investigated it immediately, assessing whether his actions would pose a threat to our community,” Crismon wrote. “He is being punished by the criminal justice system and we are monitoring him during probation.”
Court records show that a Travis County sheriff’s deputy responded May 28, 2016, to a disturbance at Morrisett’s house on Young Lane in the southwestern part of the county. “He stated nothing physical had occurred and it was a verbal disturbance,” Deputy Lance Luedecke wrote in an affidavit, referring to Morrisett.
But his girlfriend told a different story, in words and in her appearance. There was redness on the right side of her neck, on the inside of her upper lip and on her left front shoulder, and her jaw was trembling, Luedecke wrote.
She told the deputy that Morrisett had placed his right hand over her throat. “She stated she was not able to breathe due to the pressure and that Richard had her pinned to the bed,” Luedecke wrote.
Morrisett then acknowledged that he had pushed the woman “with his arm onto the bed and lost his temper,” the deputy wrote. Morrisett is 6 feet tall and weighs 230 pounds, according to court records.
“She did not lose consciousness from the strangulation, but stated she had seen stars,” Luedecke wrote.
Morrisett was charged with family violence by impeding normal breathing and circulation, and the court entered an emergency protective order barring him from communicating with the woman or going within 200 yards of her.
But less than two months later, on July 26, 2016, Deputy Ralph Cisneroz Jr. was called to Lakeway Regional Hospital to meet with the woman, who said she had been grabbed by the arms and thrown to the ground a day earlier by Morrisett, causing pain in her neck and lower back. The woman told authorities Morrisett had become angry over a grand jury indictment in the earlier assault case.
An affidavit filed by the deputy quoted her as saying that Morrisett had been living with her in the Young Lane house for the past couple of months and that she had been too scared to have the protective order enforced.
Morrisett was charged with continuous family violence and repeated violation of a protective order. Records indicate that UT police arrested him on those charges, apparently at the request of the sheriff’s office. University officials had not been aware of the earlier arrest.
The university placed Morrisett on paid leave and started the investigation that ended with him keeping his job.
Some question UT’s response
The case involving Morrisett is “deeply disturbing,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“This sequence of events would call for the most careful kind of scrutiny, especially since the university has shown that it finds domestic violence antithetical to its values,” Poliakoff said. “They’ve committed themselves to this position. Every case is individual, but they need to look at this case through the lens of policies they’ve committed themselves to which show their absolute abhorrence of domestic violence.”
“Obviously, I would think professors should be held to the same or higher standard than students,” said Jeana Lungwitz, an attorney who directs the UT School of Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic and sometimes serves as a hearing officer for complaints against students. “We certainly discipline students for behavior off campus involving people not affiliated with the university. Are we treating students more vigorously? I feel like when I hear about a case like this, yeah — but I don’t have all the facts.”
Dan Sharphorn, vice chancellor and general counsel of the UT System, which oversees the Austin flagship and 13 other campuses, defended the school’s response in a statement: “The process UT-Austin followed is consistent with the process most universities would follow in similar circumstances; namely, a decision based on a careful review of the facts and circumstances of a particular case.”