HOUSTON (CN) – Faced with having to sit through testimony from a woman he drugged before taking photos of her vagina, a former software CEO pleaded guilty Wednesday, ending his trial on its second day.
The courtroom at the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in downtown Houston was unsettled Wednesday morning. Proceedings in Henri Morris’ case did not start at 9 a.m. as scheduled.
Instead Morris, a 67-year-old former CEO of Edible Software, sat doubled over in his chair, looking rather ill, as his attorneys Dan Cogdell and Stanley Schneider, huddled around him.
Cogdell and Schneider spent the morning walking back and forth from the courtroom to the hallway with furrowed brows, as they met with prosecutors and whispers of a plea deal stirred among the 13 patient onlookers in the courtroom.
When the jury returned at 11:45 am, a written plea deal was ready for U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon.
Morris was facing five counts of transporting four women – employees of his company – across state lines, to engage in sexual activity.
In return for his guilty plea to Count 5, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the first four counts at his sentencing hearing, set for Feb. 27, 2015.
Morris, a native of South Africa, admitted drugging the women in a plea deal he signed in November 2013. He pleaded on the condition that he could withdraw the agreement if he was sentenced to more than one year in prison.
Judge Harmon tossed the deal after hearing testimony from the women, and set the case for trial.
“Do you understand that the terms of the plea agreement will be binding upon you and the government, but they’re not binding upon me?” Harmon asked Morris on Wednesday.
“No, I didn’t know that,” Morris mumbled, standing before Harmon in a dark suit, flanked by his attorneys.
“It means that I don’t have to follow the written plea agreement. If there are any promises in there I don’t have to follow them.”
Morris faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 on the felony charge.
He will also have to register as a sex offender under the deal.
Harmon broke down the “essential elements” of the charge to which Morris pleaded.
“In Count 5 the criminal sexual activity is ‘invasion of privacy’ in violation of New Jersey law. In order to find the defendant guilty of Count 5 the government would have to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt: First, that you knowingly transported the person as identified in the indictment as A.F. in interstate commerce, that is, from the State of Texas to the State of New Jersey.
“And second, that you intended to engage in sexual activity with A.F. for which if it had occurred, or did occur, you could be charged with invasion of privacy in violation of New Jersey law.”
Prosecutor Sherri Zack then presented the government’s case against Morris in regard to A.F.
Zack described how Morris took A.F. on a business trip to New Jersey.
“Upon arrival in Newark, New Jersey, the defendant and A.F. checked into a Marriott Hotel,” Zack read from the plea deal. “The defendant instructed A.F. to meet her in the concierge lounge of that Marriott.
“A.F. met Morris in the concierge lounge and Morris asked A.F. if she wanted to have dinner in Manhattan and if she wanted to see the city.
“Morris told A.F. to have a real drink. And she agreed to have a vodka and soda, which Morris prepared for her and which he drugged and presented to her in a travel cup.”
Zack said Morris spiked A.F.’s drink with crushed Ambien pills, and that after “feeling inexplicably very intoxicated” A.F. blacked out after a meal with Morris at a Manhattan restaurant.
“The next memory A.F. has is of awakening on her bed in her hotel room. She was completely naked and a pillow was covering the side of her face,” Zack said.
“The covers were pulled down around A.F.’s ankles. A.F. heard a click sound and observed the defendant standing over her with a cellular telephone. The defendant had been taking pictures of her with a cellular telephone.”
Zack said A.F. later found scratch marks on her hips and bruises on her arm.
According to Zack, on the same business trip Morris told A.F. he didn’t want her to feel awkward about what happened in the Newark hotel room.
Zack continued: “Morris told A.F. that he wanted her to feel comfortable to travel with him again. Morris told A.F. that he had never done anything like this before. Morris told A.F. that he was lonely and that sometimes he just needed a hug.”
Zack explained that “distinctive markings” on a vagina photo that FBI agents found on Morris’s thumb drive proved the photos were of A.F.
Harmon spared Morris from having to give his side of the story.
“Mr. Morris, I’m just going to ask you: Is what Zack recited and what was contained in the plea agreement, is that what happened in the commission of the crime you’re pleading guilty to?”
“Yes, your honor,” he replied.
The trial began Tuesday .
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