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Bucks murder trial puts spotlight on tumultuous relationship between suspect, victim

Michael McNew and Jennifer Morrisey's five-year relationship ended in violence.

Jennifer Morrisey is charged with killing Michael McNew.
Jennifer Morrisey is charged with killing Michael McNew.Read moreBucks County District Attorney's Office

As the trial in the murder of Michael McNew began Thursday in Bucks County, a key courtroom discussion concerned the relationship between the pharmaceutical executive and the woman accused of killing him.

Assistant District Attorney Kristin McElroy told jurors in her opening statement that Jennifer Morrisey, 34, was “taken care of” by McNew, a man nearly twice her age whom she had dated for five years. But she told them to look beyond that, to the final moments McNew spent at his home in Washington Crossing.

“You don’t have to like the fact that there is a big age difference, and you don’t have to approve of the type of relationship they had,” McElroy said. “But he didn’t deserve to die because of it.”

A coworker found McNew, 61, shot once in the head in August 2017. Morrisey was charged a month later with killing him and returning to stage the scene to look like a burglary, charges largely based on a threat-filled string of texts between her and McNew, as well as statements from jailhouse informants locked up with Morrisey.

Morrisey’s attorney, S. Philip Steinberg, has maintained that his client had acted out of self-defense as McNew brandished the gun at her during an argument.

“The crime scene, the forensic evidence, and actions of the defendant all point to one thing: She went there, she pointed a deadly weapon at him, and she shot him once between the eyes," McElroy told jurors in the Doylestown courtroom of Judge Raymond F. McHugh. "That is murder.”

Patrick McNew, the victim’s son, testified Thursday that Morrisey’s presence had a noticeable effect on his family. The relationship angered his sister, he said, enough to prevent their father from attending her wedding. When he last saw Morrisey, a few days before his father’s death, she seemed “disconnected” and appeared intoxicated, he said.

After the shooting, Morrisey sought the advice of her boyfriend, Charles “Ruthless” Kulow, a member of the Breeds motorcycle gang, according to McElroy. Kulow, she said, advised her to go back to the house with a friend of his “to make sure [McNew] was dead.”

Later, when Morrisey was in custody for the killing, she told different versions of what happened that night to various cellmates, who later told prosecutors details of the case that had not been released publicly.

“Her story went from ‘I did something’ to ‘I killed someone who abused children’ to ‘It was a struggle with a gun and it was an accident’ to, finally, self-defense,” McElroy said. “I understand these women aren’t angels ... but I submit their testimony as true, because it corroborates what the defendant told them and what evidence was found at the scene.”

But Steinberg disputed the characterization put forth by prosecutors. For one, he said, the couple’s relationship was lopsided from the day they met.

At the time, Morrisey was in “the most desperate time in her life" — a single mother with a heroin habit working as an exotic dancer. Further testimony from Thursday revealed she dropped out of high school because of bullying, and suffers from depression and PTSD.

“He charmed her, and she was ready to be charmed,” Steinberg said of McNew. “He was a man of means, and offered her an opportunity to have a part of that extravagant lifestyle.”

That charm quickly faded, with McNew turning possessive and trying to control Morrisey, who had begun to date other men, according to Steinberg. McNew paid the court fees in Morrisey’s misdemeanor drug and driving cases, but “only incrementally every month, so that she would always come back.”

Steinberg also said that McNew fluctuated between urging Morrisey to stop taking heroin and “buying dope for her” from street dealers. A police officer from Upper Makefield Township testified Thursday that he had visited McNew’s house in 2016 when a friend of Morrisey’s overdosed on heroin. McNew wasn’t home at the time.

Steinberg said that after the fatal shooting in 2017, Morrisey "entered “panic mode and ultimately stupidity mode.”

“She does everything she possibly can to make this justified shooting look justified,” Steinberg said, “because she thought no one would believe her.”

Mary Ann Stockley, a longtime coworker of McNew’s at AbbVie Pharmaceuticals, said Thursday that she and her daughter discovered McNew’s body after being asked to check on him — his manager at the company hadn’t heard from him in a few days.

The front door to McNew’s home was unlocked, she testified, and she found him on the second floor, sitting upright in a recliner “like he was staring out at the [Delaware] River.” There was no sign of a burglary in the house, where she had previously attended holiday parties and work meetings. Even the extensive art collection that decorated the walls was untouched.

Police officers who responded to Stockley’s 911 call said that they found a 9mm handgun and a rifle, but that a second pistol registered to McNew was missing. It matched the caliber of the bullet found in his body.