End of the road|Convict’s death closes chapter in 32-year-old murder

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 1, 2009

Just two hours into his second day on the job at a legendary Vicksburg truck stop, 17-year-old Phillip Morson was shot and killed by a co-worker, 29-year-old Alvin Cessna.

Thirty-two years later, the final chapter has been written.

Cessna, serving a life sentence for the 1977 slaying, died Oct. 15 in the hospital at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. A native of Pattison in Claiborne County, he died of natural causes, said Kent Crocker, a Mississippi Department of Corrections spokesman. In the weeks before his death, Cessna had been considered for release under state law that allows inmates found to have terminal diseases or other permanent, disabling conditions to be freed.

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The illness from which Cessna suffered was not disclosed, but public records show he was transferred to the prison hospital Sept. 11 and remained there until his death. “There were no addresses listed for him,” Crocker said. “Apparently they had not submitted any place for him to go.”

He was buried in the prison cemetery in the Mississippi Delta.

Attempts to reach members of Cessna’s family were unsuccessful, but Morson’s relatives and a witness to his killing spoke about the long-ago murder.

“Better gone than free,” said Gene Presley, who, from 1964 to 1984, owned Presley’s Interstate Conoco, the Vicksburg gas station and restaurant along Interstate 20 where the killing occurred. Presley now is owner of Southern Style Publications, and there’s no vestige of the truck stop, which was near the Wisconsin Avenue overpass.

Presley called the day of the killing, Sept. 21, 1977, the worst day in the otherwise stellar history of the popular landmark.

“As long as he didn’t get out of prison, I couldn’t care less if he died or stayed there,” Presley said.

Morson, whose older sister Kay was a waitress at the restaurant, had nagged Presley for years about a job pumping gas for the cars and diesel for the big rigs.

“I’d always told him, ‘you’re too young,’” Presley said. “I wish he’d been too young that day. I wish I hadn’t hired him.”

Morson was “quiet, a nice kid,” said Presley, but Cessna, hired only nine days earlier, had some rough edges and was often irate. He wasn’t working out, Presley said, and he’d told his bookkeeper to write a check so he could pay Cessna and fire him at the end of his shift.

According to reports published later in the Vicksburg Evening Post, around 11 a.m. Presley was in his office when he heard a gunshot. He came out into the small shopping area of the station and found Cessna standing behind the counter, holding a .357 Magnum revolver. Morson was on the floor, shot in the head.

“I said, ‘Alvin, what did you do?’ and he didn’t answer,” Presley testified later at Cessna’s trial. “I was angry because then he pointed the gun at me, so I asked him again, and he said, ‘I blew Phillip’s head off just like I told him I would.’”

John Morson, Phillip Morson’s cousin, then about 23, said he was working with his father and with Phillip’s father, Lawrence “Buddy” Morson, less than half a mile down South Frontage Road from the truck stop. The men were getting ready to pour concrete at a Yamaha dealership under construction.

The driver of the concrete truck came in, asked if they’d heard what happened at the truck stop and told them a young kid had been shot, John Morson said. When they asked the name, he said, “Phillip Morson,” not having any idea he was talking to the boy’s father, uncle and cousin.

“That’s how his father found out,” John Morson said.

Buddy Morson ran up the road and tried to get into the truck stop, said Phillip Morson’s sister, Ann Heidelberg. He was stopped at the door by then-Sheriff Paul Barrett, Heidelberg said. “Paul told him, ‘You can’t go in there, Buddy,’” Heidelberg said.

Both Barrett and then-Vicksburg Police Chief A.J. “Buddy” Holliday recall the killing but not many of the details. The Evening Post reported that Cessna held on to the gun until police arrived. He was arrested and bond was set at $100,000.

“Police said Morson and Cessna had been involved in an argument for some time before the shooting,” the newspaper reported. “Police had determined a possible reason for the disagreement but declined to say what it was.”

Family members said there was speculation, but they were not sure what caused the argument. “I don’t know what happened,” Heidelberg said. “It was a sad situation with a lot of people involved.”

“Phillip was talking to a young Navy man just off a ship,” said another sister, Mary Morson. “Alvin told him to get back to work, and when Phillip told him he wasn’t his boss, Alvin pulled out the gun and shot him.”

Mary Morson said Cessna was “very mentally unbalanced.” She said Cessna’s real target that day was Presley, because he knew Presley was going to fire him.

Phillip Morson was the youngest child of Buddy and Georgia Morson, both of whom died earlier this year. He had a brother and five sisters — Kay was at the truck stop working the day Phillip died — and had attended Warren Central High School.

“That was my baby,” Heidelberg said. “After he was born, I tended Phillip.”

As a child he was active and busy, she recalled. “He was so full of life, and he never met a stranger. He’d go out and talk to crews out working on the road, or people whose cars had broken down. He’d talk to anybody.”

Mary Morson said their father taught them to speak bluntly. “I wish Phillip had never said, ‘You’re not my boss.’ I don’t think Alvin would have shot him.”

Cessna was convicted of murder July 25, 1978, after a two-day trial. In addition to Presley, prosecution witnesses included Raymond McCoy, the young Navy seaman who was stationed at the U.S. Naval base in Charleston, S.C., but happened to be in Vicksburg at the truck stop.

Defense witnesses included psychiatrists who testified that Cessna had long struggled with mental illness, had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and had undergone shock treatments.

Cessna, a Vietnam War veteran, also testified in his own defense. When he shot Morson, he said, he heard a voice telling him to pull the trigger.

“There was no question that he did what he was charged with,” said Vicksburg attorney Mark Prewitt, assigned to the case by Circuit Judge Ben Guider to assist lead counsel Everett Verhine. “The question was whether he knew right from wrong when he did it.”

While admitting that his memory of the case is foggy, Prewitt said Cessna had spent time in treatment for mental illness at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. His discharge papers said he should be considered dangerous, Prewitt recalled, and he’d been prescribed medication but didn’t take it. “He said it made him sleepy so he just stopped.”

Before the trial, Guider ordered Cessna back to Whitfield to be evaluated for mental competence and to determine whether he knew right from wrong. Whitfield forensic psychiatrist Robert L. McKinley Jr. wrote the court on July 5, 1978, that “the staff unanimously agreed that Mr. Cessna was without psychosis and was responsible as well as competent to stand trial.”

“It was really sad,” Heidelberg said of the trial. It took place on Phillip’s birthday, which made it even more difficult for their parents. As Heidelberg listened to testimony and watched the families in the courtroom, however, she began to feel bad for Cessna.

“I think I felt worse for his parents than for mine,” she said. “To raise a child and see him do something like that to another human being, and lose his life in the process, my heart went out to them. The Vietnam war had really done something to him. I thought, he doesn’t have a chance. He just threw everything away.”

The jury needed about half an hour to reach its verdict. Guider immediately sentenced Cessna to life in prison.

Verhine later filed a motion for a new trial, saying Guider erred in not allowing Cessna’s family and other lay witnesses to testify as to his ability to distinguish right from wrong or offer their opinion on whether he was sane or insane. Guider denied the motion.

Cessna was sent to Parchman, where he remained until being transferred to the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl on Oct. 25, 1996, MDOC spokesman Crocker said. He remained there until his hospitalization.

“I don’t know that he ever felt remorse,” Prewitt said.

Mary Morson, however, said parole records showed that Cessna finally admitted his guilt. “I think he had a repentant attitude at the end,” she said.

Cessna went before the Mississippi Parole Board 11 times, from 1981 until earlier this year, but parole — a separate process from medical release — was always denied.

“I hope this gives the family some closure,” said Brenda Theriot, Warren County’s victim assistance coordinator, who worked with family members and witnesses in recent years when there was a possibility Cessna could be released. “Although, it won’t bring the family member back. That’s the hardest part of these cases.”

“I have no vengeful feelings toward him,” Mary Morson said. “I’m just glad he never got out because he would have done it again.” She said the family is grateful for years of support by Presley, his family and others in Warren County.

“I think he got what he deserved,” John Morson said. “He’d been in trouble before.”

Heidelberg said, however, that her faith teaches that people pay for their sins at the time of their death.

“I feel like he’s at peace,” she said.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com