A King County Superior Court judge on Thursday handed down an exceptional sentence of just over 38½ years in prison to a man convicted in May of repeatedly stabbing his estranged girlfriend in the neck in front of their young son and horrified witnesses on a sunny afternoon at the Seattle Center Armory in November 2018.
In sentencing David Lee Morris, 32, for the premeditated murder of Gabrielle Garcia, Judge Michael Scott roundly rejected defense claims that Morris’ autism and post-traumatic stress disorder affected his mental state when he killed the mother of his then-5-year-old son.
The account Morris told jurors during his first-degree murder trial in the spring — that he had a delusional flashback to his deployment in Afghanistan and thought he was saving everyone from a suicide bomber in a black burqa, a claim he never mentioned during an hourslong interview with Seattle police detectives — was evidence of his mental abilities, the judge said.
“This was a horrendous, evil, grotesque crime with many, many victims,” Scott said of the murder of Garcia, 28, who was attacked in the Seattle Center food court in front of her child and died soon after arriving at Harborview Medical Center. “This is among the most serious offenses we can conceive of.”
A jury found Morris guilty on May 20 of premeditated first-degree murder domestic violence for killing Garcia on Nov. 2, 2018. In addition to finding that Morris was armed with a deadly weapon, jurors also found evidence of two aggravating factors: that Morris committed the crime within sight and sound of a minor child and that Garcia’s murder had a foreseeable and destructive impact on the community.
Those aggravating factors allowed Scott to depart from the standard sentencing range of 20 to nearly 27 years for first-degree murder and impose an exceptional sentence of just over 38½ years in prison. The sentence included an extra seven years for the effect on Morris’ now-8-year-old son and an additional three years for the trauma caused to dozens of witnesses and bystanders. Scott also ordered Morris to have no contact with his son, Garcia’s parents or Seattle Center.
The people who tried to aid Garcia and shield her son and those who followed Morris, including one man who pointed a gun at him and ordered him to drop the knife before police arrived, “will be forever haunted by the sights and sounds of that terrible afternoon,” Scott said.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor David Martin, who leads his office’s domestic violence unit, said the jury that convicted Morris was thought to be the first in King County to find evidence of the two aggravating factors that led to Scott handing down an exceptional sentence.
“This is among the worst domestic-violence crimes this state has ever seen,” said Martin, who with Deputy Prosecutor Jocelyn McCurtain had asked the judge to impose a 45-year sentence.
Reid Burkland, one of the defense attorneys who represented Morris, argued for an exceptional sentence below the standard range, asking the judge to sentence Morris to 12 years in prison. After Scott determined he could not depart from the mandatory minimum of 20 years for first-degree murder, Burkland asked the judge to impose the minimum, plus two years for the deadly weapon enhancement, arguing Morris’ autism and mental-health issues made him “neurologically different” from other defendants.
McCurtain, however, argued Morris was a vindictive man, fully in control of his thoughts and feelings, who had planned to kill Garcia for months. In his interview with police, Morris “gave every reason under the sun why he killed Gabrielle,” justified his actions and told detectives she deserved to die, McCurtain said.
Court records say Morris was angry at Garcia for refusing to be in a relationship with him, was jealous of what he labeled her “promiscuity” and claimed she had cut him out of their son’s life. Morris had driven to Seattle from Texas days before killing Garcia and had been living in his car, the records say.
McCurtain noted Morris’ trial began April 27, which would have been Garcia’s 31st birthday. Garcia grew up in Seattle, was working to become a nursing assistant and was a loving mother to her son, who has autism, McCurtain said.
Garcia, who according to McCurtain was repeatedly harassed, belittled and berated by Morris, obtained an anti-harassment order against him days before she was killed but then agreed to a family outing at Seattle Center.
“She agreed to a parenting plan with this man because despite everything she’d gone through, she wanted her son to have a father,” McCurtain said.
Garcia’s parents also addressed the judge before Morris’ sentence was handed down.
“Gabrielle was a sweet, kind soul,” said her mother, Teema Nessoff, who has cared for her grandson since her daughter’s death and is in the process of adopting him. “She was cruelly robbed of so much. We were all cruelly robbed.”
Joe Garcia spoke of the “enormous pain” Morris has caused his family and said his grandson has already started asking why his father killed his mother.
“It’s a question that will probably never be answered and it’s very, very sad,” he said.
Morris spent much of the sentencing hearing staring at the defense table, his hands clasped in front of him. When Scott asked if he wanted to address the court, Morris replied, “No, I’m focused on the appeal, sir.”