He was a 32-year-old inmate who bludgeoned his own mother and sister to death. She was a 60-something mom with a successful life on the outside. What could have possibly made her fall for him?
On September 3, 1976, Lyal Northey, a well-connected sixty-two-year-old Santa Rosa businesswoman, donned a long white dress and styled her miraculously lush, chestnut hair into a bouffant before entering the gates of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. In her wedding photo, she stands next to her groom, Joe Morse, a man who had been convicted of murdering three people and was serving a life sentence after narrowly evading execution. Morse wears a suit with a crisp, white shirt and has long, dark hair and oversized glasses. Even in the picture, you can tell that he is a Chihuahua of a killer; a small, wiry guy with a springy sort of energy, the type of person who would intimidate others by being unpredictable. His eyes behind the lenses are narrow and suspicious, and when he laughed, it was a strange bark, like he might be laughing at you or he might be laughing at the absurdity of it all.
The 1976 wedding was small, attended only by another inmate and his wife. Northey complained in her diary that the guard peremptorily ushered her out the door so fast that she was unable to give her new husband a kiss good-bye. Afterwards, she and the other inmate’s wife left the prison and went out for Bloody Marys. Her wedding dinner that night, she wrote, was a bowl of cornflakes.
“Doing Time Outside the Wall,” Northey inscribed with a flourish on the title page of the diary. She seems to have envisioned her marriage to Morse as part romance, part social project; below the title she wrote, “to tell it as it is my only aim.” Based on the look of the front page, the deliberate showiness of it, the diary almost appears intended for public consumption, as if she were writing it as a way to explain what other people might have asked her repeatedly, “Why would you marry this man, knowing that he might never leave the gates of San Quentin?”
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Northey wasn’t the first person to marry an inmate with little hope of leaving prison, and she won’t be the last.
Julie Bindel at The New Republic wrote this winter about the “twisted psychology” of women who marry convicted killers. She describes a condition know as hybristophilia – a sexual attraction to someone who has committed a violent crime, like murder or rape. Her basic argument is that these women are essentially prison tourists, touting their privilege as a way to make themselves feel better. In her diary, Northey alludes to another inmate friend who died, although Morse would be the inmate that she married. She described herself as a “do-gooder.”
San Quentin has a majestic view of the bay; it’s now-crumbling walls sit atop a natural barricade of steep rocks sloping into the water. From the yard, the inmates can see the ferries shuttling people from Marin County to the high-rises of Downtown San Francisco. Deer are frequent uninvited visitors, darting between the watchtowers.
Even if Northey’s wedding was in a prison, her view as she walked from the outside gate to the yard would have been enviable. The approach to the prison is shadeless; there are no trees to provide cover. Only the armed guards in the towers stand watch. A long sidewalk leads visitors from the outside world into the inner gate, where they pass through more locked gates and a foreboding stone arch. Perhaps Northey lifted her dress so as not to get it dirty; prepared herself for the wedding that would be unbearably brief.
“All the criminals I’m really afraid of are all out here on my side of the wall,” she wrote somewhat prophetically in her diary, and one can understand the idea. There’s something comforting about knowing the worst about your loved one, knowing that it is all out in the open even though it is also behind locked gates.
At the time of the wedding, Morse was thirty-two years old and had been in prison since he was eighteen, when he inexplicably bludgeoned his mother Hope and sister Jennifer with a rock and a baseball bat respectively. His sister, only twelve at the time, was wheelchair-bound with cystic fibrosis and had been awoken by the screams as Morse beat his mother with the rock.
The San Diego District Attorney who prosecuted Morse, John A. Hewicker II, presented the bloody rock at trial, as well as pictures of Morse’s scarred hands from its jagged edges. He bragged that he didn’t need a confession.
Morse explained that he was under the influence of narcotics he had gotten in Tijuana. He later wrote to a friend that he had been filled with irrational rage towards his mother because she had never shown him any love. Another time, he wrote that he was worried his mother would rag on him for being high. He argued before the parole board that no sane person would beat someone to death when there was a gun in the house, which there was.
Morse was found guilty of murder at a jury trial and sent to death row, where he killed another inmate named Thomas Taddei over what Morse said was a gambling debt. In various segments of testimony and letters, Morse claimed that the debt was cigarettes or that he killed Taddei to show the other men on death row that, even if he was small, he was not to be trifled with. The prosecutor said that Morse killed Taddei over an extra portion of dessert. He was convicted again and sentenced to death for the second time.
Overall, Morse endured five trials for three murders and was sentenced to death three times. But then in 1973, three years before he met his future bride, the California Supreme Court ruled that Morse couldn’t be executed. This was one year after Furman v. Georgia, a case in which the Supreme Court held that the current death penalty statutes in the states that had them violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, making Morse’s impending execution unconstitutional.
Psychologists never seemed to quite agree on Morse’s motives. One found him to have “antisocial personality disorder [and] inadequate personality disorder.” A 1971 psychiatric evaluation said that Morse suffered from “emotional abandonment and rejection,” and a 1973 report described him as “sardonic, demonic, almost self-destructive…could not develop any meaningful, lasting personal interrelationships.” Later reports seem to put a gentler spin on him. A 1981 evaluation argued that Morse suffered from “severe deprivation as a child.” But no one ever put forth any substantive evidence of abuse.
Morse himself was somewhat mystified by his own acts. “I wasn’t able to understand or explain why I’d killed my family members,” he told a friend. In one of his many parole hearings, he admitted that he must have some sort of disorder to do what he did.
Morse’s crimes seem incompatible with the man that Northey saw.
Northey wrote in her diary that his poetic soul is what drew her to Joe in the first place. They started corresponding by fortuitous accident – Northey wrote to the editor of the San Quentin News, the inmate-run newspaper, for a “lifer” that she could write to; she wanted to correspond with someone who had been in prison for a long time, figuring that such a man would be in need of some friendship. Time passed, and her letter went unanswered. Finally, Morse, the new editor-in-chief of the News, wrote her back, apologizing for the delay.
Their first visit was on January 30, 1976, and Northey wrote in her diary that she was prepared for long silences but was unconcerned. Her business was real estate and she was used to “selling herself.” She was unafraid of a quiet man, she wrote, because her profession required her to be outgoing and charming. But, in fact, their connection was immediate. After they met, Morse remarked, “What a waste of a real good life.”
In her eyes, he was intelligent, talented, and – above all – sexy. His letters to her and her diary are filled with lust, and Morse describes in vivid detail all of the evenings he spent alone in his cell, masturbating to thoughts of Northey. He discussed their impending honeymoon with evident lust: “The trailer [for conjugal visits] makes me want to throw you in it and head for the hills. (After we try out the bed.)”
Their letters also refer to illicit sex in the visiting room, which seems to have been quite common.
Although Morse wrote about other suitors, Northey was persistent. Their relationship developed into twice-weekly visits. Some people might have wondered about their attraction, especially given the age difference — he was thirty-two when they met, and she was already sixty. Prosecutors argued that Morse had taken up with Northey to compensate for the maternal connection he’d never had as a way to show that Morse was perhaps not capable of a “normal” life. Morse himself admitted in a letter that he never felt loved by his mother and was rarely hugged or kissed.
But in their letters, the age difference never comes up. Morse later wrote to a friend that the reason he married Northey, and that she fought for his parole, was so that he could take care of her in her twilight years. But their letters were all focused on the then and now.
Once they decided to marry, Morse dedicated himself to the wedding and related preparations. The paperwork took three tries to process. Officials kept misplacing it. He made Northey a wedding gift that she picked up at the San Quentin gift shop, a glass painting. He spent a great deal of time planning their wedding announcements; there are several letters addressing this topic. Morse printed wedding announcements, “only” seventy to seventy-five because of the lack of envelopes.
It’s hard to reconcile the brutality of his crime with the perception of him that appears in his letters. Although he didn’t have much formal schooling on the outside, he finished his high school education and took classes at San Quentin in things like business management and history, on top of writing editorials for the News.
Morse wrote that Northey was the envy of his friends, who would ask him where they could get such a fine wife. “Yup, I wouldn’t trade you for three gallons of primo [prison wine],” he wrote in April of 1976.
Simultaneously, he was acutely aware of the pain that he was causing Northey, the distance he was creating between her and her friends and children: “You, however, have been shunned by everyone,” he wrote in a letter “This is a great deal to ask of you and I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t too much.” They even had a discussion about whether or not to keep the marriage a secret, “My ego could even tolerate you keeping your name,” he wrote.
Northey and Morse were able to consummate their marriage from 3:30 p.m. September 12 until 9:30 a.m. September 13, “the honeymoon,” as she gleefully wrote in her dairy. At the time, conjugal visits were still fairly common and promoted as a way to keep inmates content and well-behaved, and they would have spent the night in a small trailer with a bed and kitchenette.
Unsurprisingly, their first night as man and wife was deeply satisfying for all involved. Northey wrote that they “spell[ed] out what sexual magazines would search for in any newly married couples [sic] first hours together.”
In a letter to a friend nearly a decade later, Morse wrote that he was intimidated sexually by Northey: “I was way over my head with her. She was something…She had a big ego and was a little too overbearing sometimes.” But the details were left unsaid.
As Northey left the gates of San Quentin, a guard asked her, “How was it?”
She was quick with a rejoinder, “Oh without a man around I had forgotten how to make coffee.”
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When it came to Morse’s legal appeal and parole possibilities, Northey could be merciless. She firmly believed that Morse had changed. “These men are victims of the times,” she wrote. “The conditions of the law – the public –the ‘people’ individually NO! and worst of all – NOT WITH REASON.”
She was a tireless advocate of his, and fond of using all caps in her letters. She hired a lawyer and a psychologist to evaluate Morse and argue in favor of his release. She petitioned the parole board and frequently wrote to the prison officials of her determination.
“Yes, I am very involved, since I am Joe’s wife,” She wrote in one letter. “I have not one intention for myself to sit down and be quiet…I intend to make noise loud in clear and every newspaper in Calif will get something for publication.”
At the time of Morse’s final sentencing, lifers could be considered for parole after ten years. Following his first meeting before the parole board in January 1978, over a year after marrying Northey, Morse was initially granted parole, but this was quickly rescinded when the prosecutor objected. He came up for parole again in 1980, 1986 and 1996, when the D.A. came out of his retirement to argue against granting his release. A colleague told the LA Times, “This murderer won’t have a nanosecond to wiggle, excuse to rewrite history without John [the prosecutor] pouncing on him.”
The marriage, though, appears to have had a positive effect on Morse, as noted in a 1977 psychiatric report. Previously, Morse himself had seemed to question his own capacity for change. Truman Capote interviewed him in 1968, and Morse reportedly said, “I’d probably kill again. Do it without any thought of the death penalty. Even though I’ve already spent five years in death row and know full well what it means.”
The same dogged determination that made Northey an excellent advocate also seems to have been the cause of strife. Morse complained of feeling burdened, even from the distance of his prison cell. “She’d often get carried away and write too much,” he told a reporter.
They had squabbles, mostly, it seems, about Morse’s parole hearings. Northey wrote to Morse’s attorney, Thomas Whittener, about some of her marital troubles in an undated letter: “Everything such as husbands and wives can find to quarrel about – such as – I have been one whole month getting back to see him.” Morse also acknowledged that they had several arguments. “I feel sick about what has happened – and I’m sorry I hurt you (again),” he wrote in October of 1976, just a month after their wedding and rapturous honeymoon. He apologized in yet another letter, “So…now I fully realize again that you do nothing but good to and for me.”
Morse eventually filed for divorce. But, he maintained his admiration for her. In a 1980 hearing, he proclaimed that he and Northey were good friends despite the impending dissolution of the marriage bond. Northey had offered him a job and housing if he were to be released. Morse would die in prison over a decade later, from illnesses most likely resulting from drug and alcohol abuse.
Later, Morse seemed to address the marriage with a measured callousness, despite his protestations that they were still friendly after their divorce. He said in a letter to a friend that he had never thought he would stay with Northey long: “Her kids didn’t like it. I wouldn’t either. I wouldn’t blame them for what they felt about me.”
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Jess Smart Smiley makes pictures with his bare hands. See more at jess-smiley.com.