Crime

One-time millionaire attorney now on trial

Millionaire attorney Gregory Arthur Morris had it all. A law firm with offices in six states. His face featured on billboards and in TV advertisements. A wife and two kids.

Then one day in 1992, the Fresno personal injury lawyer and his family were on a private plane that crashed -- killing Morris' wife and injuring Morris and his children. After Morris suffered brain injuries, his life spiraled downward.

As a consequence, Morris lost track of clients' records, and his clients didn't receive all the money they thought they deserved from settlement awards, his attorney, J. Tony Serra, said Monday.

But what Serra characterized as Morris' innocent mistakes, prosecutor Roger Wilson called intentional theft.

Now a jury will decide whether the once-famed Fresno attorney is guilty of five counts of forgery and five counts of grand theft. The jury heard opening statements Monday in a trial expected to last three weeks in Fresno County Superior Court.

"My client was out of his mind," Serra said. "He was in a dysfunctional state."

Prosecutors say Morris promised his clients huge settlements, but instead quietly settled the cases without his clients' approval -- sometimes forging their signatures -- and then kept the money for himself.

"I never received a penny," said Patricia James, a former client who testified Monday that she was promised a $50,000 settlement award. When James was shown documents with her signature, she insisted that she had not signed them.

In his opening statements, Wilson said there were five victims. But an audit by the State Bar of California found that Morris misappropriated more than $161,800 from 21 clients between November 2002 and December 2004.

The audit also found that Morris failed to maintain funds in a client trust account -- which was necessary to pay clients their settlement awards -- and did not perform his legal services "competently." Morris also claimed to be an attorney when his bar license had been temporarily revoked, the audit found.

Wilson said that of the five victims, only one received a payment -- a single check for $38.

In his opening statements, Serra asked jurors to show compassion to a man who lost everything. He said Morris, who graduated near the top of his class in law school, was forever impaired by the plane crash. It took rescuers 11 hours to locate the survivors and remove Morris and his children from the wreckage, he said.

"This was the beginning of the end for my client," Serra said.

After the accident, he said, Morris started suffering from nightmares, delusions and "an overwhelming sense of despair." He thought someone was trying to kill him, Serra said.

In an interview, Serra said that three court-appointed experts have examined Morris, and two determined that he suffered serious mental health problems in the years after the plane crash, including depression.

Serra admitted that Morris signed his clients' names on some documents -- but he said all of Morris' clients had signed a form giving him permission to do so.

Clients often didn't receive all the money they thought they deserved, Serra said, because the settlement awards were used to pay attorney fees and medical bills.

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