tv Dateline MSNBC August 4, 2019 12:00am-1:00am PDT
everything's been getting better, but i'm still not ready to be trusting everyone so easily. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline." i'm craig melvin. thank you for watching. i'm craig melvin. >> and i'm natalie morales. >> and this is "dateline." >> it's gut-wrenching. >> there's a body on the side of the road. >> this young woman was shot three times. this was a murder. >> a young single mom out with friends on game day. >> it was packed. >> but as night fell fear grew. >> they're asking us do you know anybody that would want to harm your sister? >> was it someone that was a stranger? was it someone that we knew? >> i just had this weird feeling there was something she was hidi hiding. >> tucked away in her kitchen a clue to it all.
>> on top of the refrigerator was a manila folder. >> did that just give you chills? >> it was horrible. why didn't she tell us? >> did a secret lead to murder? >> it's got to be unimaginable. welcome to "dateline." when the body of brooke morris was discovered by the side of the road, her family started looking for answers. they were surprised to discover that she may have been involved in an allegedly violent relationship. could that revelation be the key to solving her murder? here with "nightfall" is andrea canning. >> i'd ask that you all close your eyes for a few minutes this morning. >> i'd like for you to envision rom county in the middle of october. the leaves are changing. there's a little bit of a nip in
the air. now envision brooke morris standing there and brooke feels like she's been punched in the throat. she's been shot. brooke feels like a bomb goes off in her body. this is the second shot, and it tears through her chest. she's terrified, and she's in extreme pain. thank you, you can open your eyes. >> reporter: the final minutes of a young woman's life detailed in a tennessee courtroom. a tragedy that devastated her family and friends. >> this cannot be happening. >> it was really the worst day of my entire life. >> who would do this to our friend brooke? it was awful. it was horrible. >> reporter: secrets exposed, but would justice be served? >> it was neverending, neverending. and i was so frustrated.
>> reporter: most people who knew brooke morris remember her radiance and zest for life. >> she was always, always, always dancing everywhere she went. >> reporter: kaitlyn okal met brooke when they were teenagers, growing up just outside knoxville, tennessee. brooke the yin to kaitlyn's yang. >> we kind of balanced each other out. she was a girly girl and i was more the tomboy. so i'd go to her house. and change into a thousand outfits and try on makeup and do our hair. and then she'd come into my house. and we'd ride four wheelers and play on the farm. >> reporter: sounds like you two were almost more like sisters? >> oh yeah, we even fought like sisters. we -- >> reporter: that's when you know you're good friends. >> yes, yes. for sure. >> reporter: this is brooke's real sister brittany and their mom, tina. what did she like to do -- >> clothes. clothes -- >> very very girly, loved doing hair and stuff like that.
>> she was just a girly girl. >> reporter: a little southern belle? >> uh-huh, yeah. >> yes, yes. >> reporter: the little southern belle grew into a beautiful young woman. sometime blonde, sometime brunette, brooke always drew people into her lively orbit. >> really spontaneous, fun, hilarious, just the life of the party, could literally make friends with anyone. >> reporter: dina renee was one of them. >> she would come over to my house. and she'd be, like, "we're going out tonight. we're going to have fun." >> reporter: and that meant one thing on fall saturdays in knoxville, volunteers football at the university of tennessee. >> the strip is completely packed. there are vol fans everywhere. it is so much fun. lots of cooking out. lots and lots of fun. >> reporter: lots and lots of orange? >> lots of orange. >> reporter: was this something that brooke looked forward to? >> oh yeah. >> reporter: on saturdays? >> all of us at that age, you know? that was what you did on saturday. you wanted to get your orange
and white outfits. and -- and figure out where you were going to be. >> reporter: october 15th, 2011 started out as one of those fun days. the vols were taking on louisiana state and brooke was tailgating with friends. but by nightfall, something was terribly wrong. >> 911, where's your emergency? >> uh, we're down here on blair road. >> reporter: 40 miles away from knoxville, a couple was driving down a country road. they were keeping an eye out for crossing deer when their headlights illuminated something else. >> and there is a body laying off the side of the road. >> ok, i need somebody to check for a pulse. >> she's, she's a bloody mess, ma'am. >> i understand. >> reporter: chief deputy tim phillips of the roane county sheriff's office had just finished watching the football game when dispatch called him at home. >> what information were you given before you arrived at the scene as -- as you were driving there? >> essentially had -- had a white female that was deceased that was laying on the side of the road. >> reporter: the body had been
found just after 8pm at the intersection of two quiet rural roads, not far from the chief's home. the woman had not been dead for very long. when you arrived here. what could you see? >> the victim's body was over here on the side of the road close to the intersection here at old blair. >> reporter: right on the road? >> yeah, right on the white line. you know. >> reporter: what did she look like? what could you see? >> she was well-dressed wearing blue jeans, boots, and a bright orange shirt. she had her purse there with her and everything. >> reporter: i.d.'ing the victim was the easy part, her driver's license was found right in her purse at the scene. it was 23-year-old brooke morris. the hard part would be unraveling the mystery that led to her death on this lonely country road. >> was it someone that was a stranger to us? was it someone that we knew? all kinds of things were coming into our heads, you know, trying to figure this all out. coming up -- what happened to brook?
>> they're asking do you know anybody that would want to harm your sister? and we're like we don't have a clue. >> the hunt for a killer begins and it starts close to home. when "dateline" continues. s. protect your pet with the #1 name in flea and tick protection. frontline plus. trusted by vets for nearly 20 years. [ text notification now that you have] new dr. scholl's massaging gel advanced insoles with softer, bouncier gel waves, you'll move over 10% more than before. dr. scholl's. born to move. did you know that every single flush [toilet flush] flings odors onto your soft surfaces? then they get released back into the air so you smell them later. ew. right? that's why febreze created new small spaces. [clicking sound] press firmly and watch it get to work... [popping sounds] unlike the leading cone, small spaces continuously eliminates odors in the air and on surfaces [popping sounds]
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she woke her husband. >> and i said, "i just feel really sick, like just all of a sudden really sick in my stomach." and he was like, "well, what do you think's goin' on?" i'm like, "i don't know. i just feel really nauseous." and it wasn't 20 minutes later i get a phone call. >> reporter: sheriff's deputies were looking for her mother, tina. >> he didn't want to tell us much until he talked to mom first. >> reporter: tina was at a friend's house. both chief phillips and brittany headed over there. >> mom, you know, comes to the door. and then she looks at me. and she's like, "it's brooke, isn't it?" and i'm like, "yeah." >> how did you know? what -- >> i knew it had to be because brittany was there, you know? so it had to be. >> i've delivered more than my share of death notifications, and this particular one was -- i'll never forget it. i just asked her to sit on the couch and we sit there for a second and i said, "you know, we're -- is brooke morris your daughter?"
she said she is. and i said, "well, she's been murdered." >> she passed out cold. so we had to get her to, you know, come back to. and i think we were just all shocked. >> reporter: when tina came to, she could hardly process what had happened. >> it was almost like it was not real. you know, "you've got the wrong person. it's not her." >> reporter: but it was real. brooke was dead. she'd been shot 3 times -- once in the neck, once in her chest and an execution style shot to the back of her head. >> i could not believe that another human could be so heartless. >> and you know, they're asking us these questions like, "who would -- do you know anybody that would want to harm your sister?" and we're like, "we don't have a clue." >> i could not even think of someone that would want to hurt brooke in any way. everybody loved brooke.
>> reporter: but investigators had to start somewhere. although only 23 years old, brooke already had an ex-husband -- clayton morris. she met him soon after high school. >> he was kind of country, you know? they just hit it off. they just had fun together and started dating. and then the surprise popped up. >> she comes home with some news, some big news. >> mm-hmm. she was totally excited. of course. i was not so much excited. >> reporter: brooke, then 20 years old, was pregnant. >> i thought brooke was too young, for one thing. and you know, it's just-- it's not what i had hoped for her at that time. >> reporter: brooke and clayton were determined to make a go of it as a family. so before they became three, they got married. >> then they had this sweet baby that just stole my heart.
in an instant, you know -- >> did that make it all better? when you met your grandson? >> it did, it absolutely did -- >> and how was brooke as a mom? did she just take right to it? >> oh, yeah. >> reporter: they moved into a house and both had jobs. but the young couple soon realized that family life came with grown-up responsibilities and problems. >> did she confide in you at all about how things were -- were not great at home? >> yeah, of course. she talked to her friends about it and we just tried to be as supportive that we can. but we were on such a different level than she was, you know? here we were still single. and she was married with a baby. so hard for us to kind of relate in that area. but i think she -- she knew that it wasn't going to -- to work, you know? >> reporter: after two years, the couple split. brooke moved out and clayton stayed in the house with their son. but brooke's family says she and clayton were committed to raising the child together. >> well, she lived, you know, just a few doors up from clayton and they had shared custody
of the baby. >> was it an amicable divorce or did they fight? >> they had some disagreements, you know. they definitely had some disagreements. >> ex-husbands, husbands, spouses are always looked at? >> they are. >> did you feel he was an important person to talk to as well? >> we did. >> did you call him right away? >> we actually went and seen him. >> reporter: it was the middle of the night, just hours after brooke's body was discovered, when investigators arrived at clayton's house. chief phillips woke him up. >> so what do you say to him then? >> we didn't tell him that brooke was deceased and -- and our main objective is to try to find out what he had been doing that evening. >> you want to hear his story before you talk about what happened to brooke? >> that's right. >> reporter: clayton told investigators he had their son that weekend. he said he was at work all day saturday and then spent the evening at home. >> could he have left the child and gone out? >> he could have. coming up --
admits to being in denial about brooke's death. >> i kept thinking, you know, she's going to call, she's going to call. i know she's going to call. and she's going to say, "mom, you know, it was a big mix-up," you know? i just couldn't grasp that she was gone forever. >> tina had a very hard time. i remember being at her funeral. and tina was holding this picture of brooke and just crying, just hysterically. i mean, two people had to carry her to the gravesite. >> reporter: along with grief there was something else. >> how scary was it to you that whoever did this was out there? >> oh, very scary. i mean, because they've taken something from you. i mean, what are their motives for us? >> reporter: roane county investigators, tasked with bringing brooke's killer to justice, had spoken to her ex-husband clayton morris the night of the murder. >> were you getting any kind of a vibe from clayton? >> you know, sometimes you read people and -- and, you know, people throw off body language
but he just seemed like, "what in the world's going on?" >> reporter: and despite the tension during the marriage and divorce, those who knew brooke best didn't think her ex-husband was a killer. >> i just never entertained that thought. >> clayton was a good person. so i didn't think that, you know, he would be capable of doing something like that to brooke. >> reporter: more importantly, clayton's alibi checked out. investigators cleared him. if not the ex-husband, then who? who had brooke come in contact with that weekend? investigators retraced brooke's steps, starting not with the game on saturday, but with the night before, friday. friends told investigators they had tickets to a concert. >> she was super excited about going to that. so she was just like, "okay, i've got to go -- i've got to go find something to wear. i'm going to go to dinner." >> reporter: after dinner, brooke left her car in a shopping center parking lot near
the restaurant, and drove with friends to the concert. she spent the night at dina's house. >> i called it hotel dina like everyone just stayed. >> yeah. >> left it unlocked for everyone, you know. >> reporter: the next day, saturday, was the tennessee-lsu football game and everyone was looking forward to tailgating. but the fun day turned sour. brooke borrowed something out of dina's closet and the girlfriends had an argument about it. >> and i had found out she had wore it without asking. >> reporter: it was a silly fight, but it stuck with brooke. she didn't tailgate for long. >> she had been calling all these people to pick her up to take her to her car because she wanted to change her outfit for the night, for that night. >> reporter: brooke's friend albert dotson had been tailgating with her earlier in the day. >> so we would, like, break off, and i was with some other friends of ours at that time. so i'm not really sure where she was. >> reporter: neither dina nor albert ever saw brooke again. and with more than 100,000 football fans flooding the city for the game, finding brooke's
killer was like looking for a needle in an orange haystack. >> i thought that maybe someone had kidnapped her, you know? and we were all just trying to figure out who would have done this and why. what was their motive, you know? it was a very horrible time. >> did you think that maybe it could be connected to the game? >> you never know. you never can -- you can never rule it out. it's tennesse football, and you know, she so happened to be wearing a bright orange top and if anybody knows anything about tennessee football, bright orange is the color for the tennessee vols. >> reporter: but brooke's body had been discovered about 40 miles from the football stadium and investigators were still stymied as to how she ended up there. did it lend itself to that she maybe was dumped here? or did you think that she was actually shot here? >> based off of everything that was here at the scene, it appeared that she was shot here. >> reporter: the crime scene itself yielded little physical evidence, no fingerprints, no tire marks, and no murder weapon.
only some brass, as they call it. >> they found spent ammo, they found live ammunition. >> reporter: three shell casings as well as some unfired bullets. all from a .32-caliber gun. that brass was sent to be tested in a lab, while investigators turned their attention to one item at the crime scene that could possibly provide some quick leads -- brooke's cell phone. it was right there, unlocked and in her purse. >> you can find a lot out about a person within seconds of, you know, going over the person's cell phone so it was very helpful to us. >> reporter: in fact, brooke's phone provided investigators with a major lead to pursue. two leads, actually. two men. investigators wanted to talk to them. but they'd have to find them first. >> it's always a concern whenever you have somebody that you'd like to talk to and you can't get to them to talk to them. >> who were these two men?
could they help investigators unravel this mystery? coming up -- >> we do consider people like him a person of interest. >> and what was their relationship to brooke? >> there's still something going on that shouldn't be going on. >> mm-hmm. >> when "dateline" continues. s fleas through contact all month long. i mean he's a wreck without me. advantage ii, fight the misery of biting fleas.
i'm marlie hall with the hour's top stories. a el paso, texas became the latest scene of deadly gun violence in america. 20 people killed. shooting rampage that the governor called one of the deadliest days in texas history. the 21-year-old man arrested in the attack posted a hate-filled rant online less than a half hour before he opened fire. police say he's talking with investigators. now back to "dateline."
welcome back. i'm craig melvin. with very little evidence found at the scene of brook morris's murder, data from her cell phone showed she had been in contact with two men the day she was killed. could one of them be responsible for brooke's murder, or was this another dead end? here again is andrea canning. >> the brutality of brooke morris's murder fueled the search for her killer. >> we really hate that they came into our community and committed such a crime. >> reporter: roane county investigators had cleared brooke's ex-husband, clayton. but they had two other men to look at, two men whose names and numbers were right there in brooke's phone. >> who was brooke communicating with that day that seemed to be of potential importance? >> daniel hawkins. >> this is a man she used to date? >> this is a person that we believe that she had a relationship with, yes. >> i think they were talking, nothing too extreme. maybe a couple of dates. >> reporter: albert knew daniel
through mutual friends. >> we would just hang out with daniel, you know. i would text him and be like, "hey, man, are you coming out?" and he'd meet up with us. >> reporter: but albert hadn't and didn't know daniel and brooke had been texting each other, making plans to meet up. investigators say they called the number listed for daniel on brooke's phone. he didn't answer. >> you couldn't find him? >> couldn't find him. >> reporter: investigators learned daniel lived in colorado. he'd just been in knoxville for the weekend. >> were you worried that you couldn't get a hold of him and he was out there? >> yeah, it makes you wonder, you know, what's going on? are they intentionally trying to avoid you? >> reporter: daniel had flown back to colorado by the time he got on the phone with a sheriff's investigator. >> basically interviewed him and got his whereabouts. >> where was he? >> from what i understand, he was at the ball game. >> reporter: daniel hawkins told investigators he was at the stadium watching the football game, as he texted with brooke on and off throughout the afternoon. the game ended just before
7:00 p.m. brooke's body was found just after 8:00 p.m. so if daniel was telling the truth, investigators had to figure out if he had enough time to get through the crush of vols fans, meet up with brooke and make the 40-mile drive here to roane county to commit the murder, all within about an hour. as investigators looked at daniel's timeline, they saw he was still texting brooke long after the game ended. the last text was just a little past midnight. it read, "where are u darlin?" by then brooke had been dead for more than four hours. >> until we clear him and rule him out, we do consider people like daniel hawkins a person of interest. >> reporter: but daniel hawkins wasn't the only person texting with brooke. who else had brooke been texting with? >> shawn smoot. >> what did you learn about shawn smoot? >> we found out that he ran an allstate office there in west knoxville. >> married, children? >> married, was no longer married at that particular time.
>> reporter: amy denlinger is a former employee of shawn's. >> what were your impressions of shawn? >> seemed like a nice enough person, outgoing, typical sales, easy to get along with. >> reporter: shawn smoot, the name rang a bell with brooke's family and friends. not long after brooke's divorce, shawn had hired brooke as an assistant in the insurance office. >> i remember the day that she had the interview. we had lunch right before, and she was so excited, you know? >> it was a real job. and i said there's going to be so much potential for you to move up in this company. you know? i was really proud of her. >> did you feel like this was kind of the fresh start brooke needed? >> yeah, we did. we thought -- we all thought it was going to be a good thing for her. >> did she seem happy? >> oh yeah, she loved it. i think there was a couple other ladies in the office that she worked with. everybody got along, and she enjoyed it.
>> she had formed a really, i guess, tight relationship with her boss. >> reporter: but brooke's family had no idea how close brooke's relationship with her boss shawn smoot actually was. some of her friends did. >> well, she had told me in the beginning that she had started working for this guy, shawn smoot. and a little bit down the road i had like saw them out eating or something like that. as things progressed in their relationship, i was like, "what's going on here?" i was like this guy, he seems a bit older, is he -- you know, does he have a family or anything like that? and she was like, yeah. she's like, he's married. >> reporter: an affair with a married man. >> i don't really think she was, like, committed to that relationship. i think it was just her just coming through a divorce. and she had this attention from this man. >> but there's still something going on that shouldn't be going on? >> uh-huh. >> reporter: brooke left the job
after just a few months. but it was clear, to investigators, at least, that brooke and shawn were still in touch. her phone showed calls between them on the day of the football game. and they'd been texting back and forth. >> did you call him? >> our attempts to call him were unsuccessful. >> another one who's not around? >> that's correct. >> reporter: detectives decided not to wait for shawn to pick up his phone. they went to his house in the early morning hours after brooke's murder. >> you go over there. is he home? >> he is. >> reporter: shawn told investigators he had seen brooke the day before. she'd called him from downtown knoxville asking for help. remember, brooke's tailgating plans had gone awry and she'd wanted to go home and change her clothes. she needed a ride to her car, which had been left at a restaurant the night before. shawn said he agreed to give her a lift but said they went to a bar to watch the game first. >> he had picked her up and they'd went to, i think, wild wings and buffalo wild wings. it's two different restaurants within the same square mile of each other.
>> reporter: shawn said he then dropped brooke off at her car in the parking lot where she'd left it. >> did he say he didn't know where she went after that? >> he was at home. he said he didn't know where she went. >> reporter: so had brooke met her killer there in the parking lot or some time later? perhaps she left to meet up with that other guy she'd been texting, daniel hawkins. but as far as investigators knew, shawn smoot was the last person to have seen brooke alive. and as investigators checked out his story, something wasn't adding up. >> so is this one of the first now where this guy's not being straight with us? >> it wasn't one of the first. it was one of the many. >> coming up -- a secret brooke never shared with her family. >> did that just give you chills when you found the manila envelope? >> yeah. if was horrible. >> when "dateline" continues. you're doing what's right, to protect your dog from fleas and ticks for a full month. it's the #1 vet recommended protection.
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investigators working brooke morris's murder case were take a hard look at two men she'd been talking to the day she was killed. daniel hawkins said they tried to meet up but never did. >> were daniel's friends able to back up his alibi? >> his alibi was verified. >> he was really at the game? >> yes. >> reporter: because of the time the game ended, detectives concluded daniel hawkins couldn't have been in roane
county at the time of the murder. he was eventually cleared by authorities. but could they verify shawn smoot's story? he told investigators he and brooke grabbed a drink after he picked her up. sure enough, here's video of them at one of the restuarants he said they went to. here they are taking their drinks out to the patio. another camera captured the couple leaving at about 6:30 p.m. brooke is walking several steps ahead of shawn, something chief phillips thought was telling. >> normally if people are happy and all that stuff, you think they would walk out together. and if there was something going on, maybe she was like, you know, i want to just get away from him or whatever, i'll be glad when he drops me off at my car. >> reporter: this is the parking lot where shawn smoot said he dropped brooke off at her car. none of the security cameras around here had the car in view, but it was still sitting here the next day after brooke died. which made investigators wonder was shawn smoot telling them the truth? and if he wasn't, where did they really go? so they decided to trace his
steps. they pulled his cell phone records and found something unusual. in the 2 1/2 hours after shawn and brooke had last been seen together, there was no activity on his cell phone. and here's what also stood out. around 11:00 p.m. his phone started pinging off towers along this major interstate heading out of knoxville. then it looked like shawn turned around.ard pinging in the other direction, all the way back to his house. >> did he talk about why he was maybe about to leave town but didn't or why he turned around? >> well, initially talking to him, he -- he had told us that he was home all night. >> so that's an inconsistency for you? >> it is. >> reporter: investigators were becoming increasingly suspicious of shawn smoot. and they weren't the only ones. brooke's closest friends never really suspected her ex-husband clayton, or daniel hawkins, but they knew her relationship with shawn had been stormy. >> she would just, you know, tell me little things here and there.
>> reporter: her friends say shawn had a temper and kaitlyn witnessed it firsthand one night after a dinner. shawn was drunk kaitlyn says, so she didn't want brooke to drive home with him. >> he did not like that. he began to get very angry. and we drove just down the street, pulled into the parking lot. and i pulled up right beside her car and she opened the door. and shawn was like right there, grabbed her by the arm. i told her, "brooke, just get back in the car." and so she did. she got back in the car. and we drove off. >> reporter: friends say similar incidents followed. brooke felt shawn was stalking her, showing up unannounced and uninvited when she was out with friends. even after she stopped working for him. >> she definitely knew that something was wrong, you know, after he was obsessive with her, calling her multiple times and texting her and then stalking her. you know, she knew that, you
know, it -- "this man has got some issues. i've got to try to get away from him." >> reporter: brooke reached her breaking point and in january 2011 did something she thought would get shawn out of her life forever. >> she was just, like, "i'm done with this situation. he won't leave me alone. i'm -- you know, i'm going to the wife. she needs to know about the situation." >> i think she was probably tired of living in this secret. you know, she'd wanted to be free from the situation. >> the wife knows, he'll leave me alone. >> yeah. i mean, you know, "if i'm honest with the wife, then maybe, you know, they can try to work out their problems. and he'll leave me alone." >> reporter: but it backfired. shawn's marriage imploded. >> she was just like, i've gone to the wife. she's getting a divorce. she's made him move out. >> he lost everything after that. >> yeah. >> reporter: and friends say shawn continued to harrass brooke. in fact, they say, things only intensified. >> beyond emotional abuse? was it physical?
>> mm-hmm. yes. >> she had just told me that shawn was getting violent. >> he broke into her apartment one night, came in through the bathroom window, threw her head up against the tile floor. >> reporter: brooke's family didn't know about any of this. the relationship, the alleged violence. it wasn't until after her death that her family finally learned brooke's secret. >> did that just give you chills when you found that -- >> yeah, it was -- >> -- manila envelope? >> it was horrible. >> reporter: it was brittany who discovered it, as she went about the grim task of cleaning out brooke's apartment. >> and we were kind of getting stuff in order to pack away and send. and so i went in her kitchen. and on top of the refrigerator >> reporter: brittany opened the folder. it was an order of protection brooke had taken out about a year before her murder against her former boss, shawn smoot. >> and it was page after page of
just crazy stuff that he did to her. and i'm just like, this is horrifying. like, i didn't even know that any of this was happening. >> reporter: the document details a litany of alleged violent outbursts by shawn -- including the time brooke says he broke into her apartment and attacked her. >> why didn't she just tell us, you know, that this is what i'm going through, i need help? >> why do you think she didn't want to share with you what was going on in her life? >> she knew we'd have a fit. i mean, i would have hunted him myself, for hurting her in any way. and i think she knew that. >> reporter: brooke's friends who knew about the order of protection were surprised to find out she and shawn were talking on the day of the football game. >> nobody knew that she even had contact with him. >> reporter: but to investigators, there was something different about this particular order of protection. brooshawn to have
social contact. and sure enough, they had continued to talk and spend time together. so they had to wonder if things were really that bad between brooke and shawn. the investigation dragged on for weeks. then months. it was almost too much for tina to bear. >> i got really frustrated. yeah, i did. you know, and i'm sure they had to hear my wrath a few times. because you know, i'm a mother. and i wanted to know who did it. and i wanted him put behind bars. >> reporter: but a major break in the case was coming. would a jury be able to put it all together? >> i said, "were you directly or indirectly involved?" >> coming up -- a murder charge at last. >> all goes silent. brooke morris is dead. >> i wanted them to envision this young woman being shot three times. >> when "dateline" continues.
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-while you ponder that, consider adopting a rescue pet. there are 6.5 million of them; they all need a forever home. it would mean the world to them, and they will love you forever. brooke morris's family and friends had come to a heart-wrenching conclusion. she had been in a violent relationship with shawn smoot. a relationship that ended with her murder. did it just seem so easy to you that, okay, they can go arrest him now? like we know who did it? >> oh, absolutely.
>> but that didn't happen. >> mm-mm. >> no. and you know, i kept thinking, well, surely, any day now. any day now. >> reporter: investigators had their suspicions as well and they were trying to build a case against smoot. he was the last to see her alive. they had an allegedly violent relationship. he had lied to investigators. but so far they had found no physical evidence tying him to the crime. you were able to search shawn smoot's apartment? >> we were. >> reporter: do you find anything? >> we find an empty box that once contained a firearm with some ammunition. >> reporter: no gun? >> no gun. >> reporter: the box was for a .32-caliber pistol. the same caliber as the murder weapon. and the ammo? >> it was the same style of ammunition that was found at the murder scene. >> reporter: but without the actual gun itself, the circumstantial case wasn't strong enough to charge smoot with murder. then the crime lab released its ballistics report showing that
marks on shell casings from the crime scene matched marks on a bullet found in smoot's home. his missing handgun appeared to be the murder weapon. that's a huge connection. >> it is pretty much the connection. >> reporter: in june of 2012, eight months after brooke was killed, shawn smoot was indicted on charges of first degree murder. did you immediately identify with her just being this young woman who was clearly so vulnerable? >> oh, absolutely. >> reporter: prosecutors bob edwards and tiffany starr smith saw this case as a relationship turned deadly. >> we're still talking about domestic violence. we're still talking about orders of protection, and all of the things that go wrong in those situations. >> reporter: you had no witnesses. you had no dna from your suspect. you had no murder weapon. that's a lot of things you didn't have. >> if we didn't feel like we could prosecute it and be
successful, we would have never indicted it. we would have never proceeded with it. >> circumstantial cases are -- allow you to be creative. you can take a set of facts and -- and weave a story together for your theory of prosecution. >> reporter: shawn smoot insisted he was innocent. he cycled through five different defense attorneys and the trial was delayed again and again. >> it was surreal, really. you know, because it had been reset 22 times. 22 times. >> reporter: that's torture. >> it is. it is torture. >> reporter: the trial finally started in july 2016, nearly five years after brooke died. robert jolley, smoot's fifth attorney, believed the state's case was weak for one simple reason. >> i don't think that they did very thorough investigations of anyone other than mr. smoot. and even his investigation wasn't very thorough. >> reporter: jolley told the jury just how little that investigation had uncovered.
>> there are no fingerprints. there's no gunshot residue test, there's no dna test, there's absolutely no evidence that links mr. smoot to roane county on that evening. >> reporter: the defense sought to prove that the evidence the state did have wasn't actually incriminating. like the missing gun that shawn owned. yes, it was the same caliber as the murder weapon. but -- >> there are however many million of people in this country who own guns. and this was a very common weapon. >> reporter: the defense also argued that the ballistics report linking shell casings from the crime scene to a bullet at smoot's home had no actual science behind it. >> there's no scientific evidence of that or any standard that show that, is there? >> there's not currently a standard that shows that every firearm makes unique marks. >> reporter: as for the volatile
relationship described in the order of protection? the defense pointed out that smoot never admitted to any of the allegations and he was never charged, much less convicted, of any assault on brooke. >> the order doesn't mean that mr. smoot ever did anything. it doesn't mean that mr. smoot admitted that he did anything. >> reporter: and the order of protection didn't prevent them from seeing each other, which they clearly did. >> ms. morris told the judge that she wanted to have social contact with mr. smoot. >> reporter: jolley argued if brooke was so afraid of smoot why would she want to keep seeing him? after all, phone records showed she was the one who called him that day. >> she continued to treat shawn as a friend. as someone that she would do activities with. >> reporter: did you worry that that could be confusing to the jury? >> absolutely. and i think that's the underlying question anytime that we're talking about domestic violence. why does anyone go back?
>> reporter: the prosecutors hoped any doubt the jury may have regarding smoot's guilt would be w >> do you swear the testimony you're about to give will be the truth -- >> reporter: amy denlinger, who was working for smoot when brooke was murdered, says her impression of the nice outgoing man who hired her didn't last. why did it change? >> he was cold. he got angry easily. not satisfied, really, ever. it almost seemed like he enjoyed getting somebody riled up. >> reporter: in court she testified about what happened the monday following brooke's murder. >> now, on that day did mr. smoot come into the office? >> he came in that morning. when i saw him the first time, he didn't see me and he was crouched down under his desk, unhooking his computer. and i asked him if he was ok, and he said, "no."
and i asked him if there was anything i could do, and he said, "turn back time." >> reporter: amy had already heard about the murder, and that investigators had been to smoot's house. she told the jury what the defendant said next. >> and at that point i asked him if he was directly or indirectly involved and he said "both." >> reporter: did you take that as a total admission of guilt? >> absolutely. absolutely. >> reporter: it had taken nearly five years after brooke's murder to get her alleged killer before a jury. it took the jury less than four hours to reach its verdict. >> we the jury find the defendant, shawn nelson smoot, guilty of premeditated first degree murder of brooke nicole morris. >> reporter: what's the emotions that you're feeling when you hear that word? >> well, of course, we can't show emotion in court. >> reporter: okay, what's going on, on the inside? >> on the inside, i'm screaming. i'm jumping for joy.
>> i was able to give tina gregg a hug, and see her smile through all of the tears that she had over the last five years. >> reporter: this was the moment she'd been waiting for? >> yes. i think it was the moment we'd all been waiting for. >> reporter: for the prosecutor the case was about more than winning a conviction. there's a lesson to be learned. for a woman watching this who is maybe going through a similar situation what's the message from this story for her? >> get out. get help. get out. don't go back. it's not going to change. >> speak out. and don't be afraid. don't be ashamed. because you know, it's not your fault that you're being treated this way. you should never be treated that way. >> reporter: the jurors also had to decide smoot's sentence. that's when prosecutor tiffany starr smith asked them to imagine the horror of brooke's last moments. >> i'd ask that you all close your eyes for a few minutes this morning. >> reporter: were you hoping that having the jury close their
eyes like that would have a powerful impact? >> i wanted them to try to envision this young woman out in the middle of nowhere being shot three times by an angry man that she was afraid of. >> all goes silent and at 23 years old brooke morris is dead. >> reporter: the jury sentenced smoot to life without the possibility of parole. he is appealing his conviction. that conviction and the sentence have provided comfort for brooke's family. but not closure. >> i can't make any more memories with her. the only memories i have are past memories. i mean, it's hard. >> she's always in my heart. she will always be in my heart. and you know, we had -- i had 23 wonderful years with brooke. i wish i had 53 more. but unfortunately, i don't. but i know where brooke is.
i know i'll see her again. and that gives me hope. >> that's all for this edition i'm craig melvin. >> i'm natalie morales. and this is "dateline." they were in love. they were so happy at first. sharing a lovers first. high atop a cliff. the romance turned to danger. she fell from the edge. i would call this an accidental death. >> but it wasn't. >> she said if anything happens to me, you'll know who did it. a mystery of nearly 20 years heads into court and the husband is on the precipice. >> did you kill your wife? >> i