Less than a month after being found guilty of murdering poker pro Susie Zhao, Jeffery Bernard Morris was sentenced today to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The sentencing in Michigan’s Oakland County Circuit Court comes two and a half years after Morris brutalized and murdered Zhao, a Los Angeles poker scene regular who had moved to Michigan to live with family during the COVID-19 pandemic. The graphic case, in which prosecutors argued Morris “used Zhao to make his violent fantasies come true,” has captivated the poker community as those who knew Zhao awaited justice.
The 62-year-old Morris appeared in court in a crumpled orange jumpsuit and stood silently as Judge Martha Anderson delivered the sentencing in the brutal case.
“Having sat through that trial, it was one of the most agonizing things for myself,” Anderson said on Thursday morning. “And trust me, I’ve had murder trials, many, many of them. But I can’t get over the brutality of this murder, and the needlessness of it all.”
Read about the Susie Zhao murder trial
“Destroyed Everything She Had Accomplished”
As laid out during the week-long trial, Morris met up with Zhao, who struggled with illness and had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, at a Michigan motel before tieing her up and driving her to a state recreation area, where he sexually assaulted and burned her alive.
“You took advantage of an individual who was fragile and basically destroyed everything that she had accomplished in her life,” Anderson told Morris on Thursday. “And I don’t believe there’s any sentence that this court could impose that will ever make others that are close to Zhao feel good about the situation.”
Lead prosecutor John Skrzynski, who built a robust case against Morris that drew from cell phone data, eyewitness reports and DNA evidence, told the court that “the worst punishment that he can have is the one that he’s going to receive.”
“Because for the rest of his life he’s going to have to live with people who are exactly like him,” said Skrzynski.
Morris declined to speak ahead of his sentencing other than stating that “there’s a lot I would like to say, but at this time I’m not going to say anything.”
“I’ll wait until we come back on appeal and we do it again,” he said.
Poker Was Zhao’s “American Dream”
Before Anderson delivered her sentence, Meredith Rogowski, a childhood friend of Zhao’s, spoke on behalf of Zhao’s family and told the court that the trial had been “just a small, gruesome glimpse of a … beautiful life.”
Rogowski talked about meeting Zhao on the school bus in 6th grade in Michigan and forming “a friendship that significantly shaped the course of my life.” She said Zhao was “conspicuously adult” from a young age and had a love for dark comedies, unicorns and glitter.
“To me, this agelessness was Susie’s most endearing quality,” Rogowski said. “While very adult at 10, she remained equally childlike and innocent as a young woman.”
Zhao, who came to the US from China as a young child, also had a love for games, and in middle school she discovered a game called poker and “organically absorbed it into her identity.”
“After school, she would routinely meet other kids in the basement of the apartment complex and win their allowance,” said Rogowski, who noted that Zhao “liked that it was a boy’s game and with her natural charisma, mathematical aptitude and skill for reading others, she found a lot of power in a deck of cards.”
After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in psychology, Zhao moved to the West Coast to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional poker player. She played and commentated on the Live at the Bike stream at LA’s Bicycle Casino, made multiple deep runs in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event and befriended players like Xuan Liu, Bart Hanson, Allen Kessler and Ronnie Bardah.
Susie Zhao was a so fkn cool. Was nice on and off the table. Had the pleasure to hang out and break bread with her… https://t.co/BQSkq5awGO
“Poker was how Susie discovered the American Dream,” said Rogowski. “Poker enabled her to turn nothing into tremendous wealth. And this was freedom.”
Though friends had “noticed changes in Susie’s behavior” in recent years, Rogowski said she hadn’t been aware of Zhao’s schizophrenia diagnosis and mental health struggles until after her death.
“But one thing was certain about Susie: she never expressed any vulnerability or weakness,” she said. “Her poker face was unbreakable. If she had told us what she was going through, what was inside her head, we would have been there for her.”
Click here to read what witnesses had to say during the Susie Zhao murder trial in October.