Paul Morales booking photo from the Greene County Jail
Paul Morales (Booking photo by Greene County Sheriff's Office)

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The man police believe pulled the trigger in the 2021 fatal shooting of 23-year-old Chandler Sweaney not only rejected a plea agreement, but he attempted to fire his public defender Monday morning. 

Paul Morales, 31, is charged with second-degree murder, armed criminal action and other weapons charges.

Sweaney is described in court documents as an innocent victim who unknowingly rented a room to a drug dealer — a mistake that led to his death.

Two other men have already pleaded guilty for their involvement in the shooting. 

This is Chandler Sweaney
Chandler Sweaney was 23 when he was murdered in 2021. Police say he rented a room to a drug dealer. The shooting happened when that roommate was being robbed. (Photo provided by Shelley Larrick)

Timothy Johnson, 34, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree assault. He will be sentenced in a Greene County courtroom in October.

Rickey Rose pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and will also be sentenced in October.

While both Johnson and Morales were known gang members and the shooting happened during the course of a drug-related robbery, investigators say Sweaney was not involved in any illegal activity.

After nearly 30 minutes of Judge Jerry Harmison explaining to Morales about the importance of having an attorney represent Morales in court, Morales agreed to keep his attorney. A pre-trial hearing will be held later this week to decide if the jury trial will happen in October as scheduled. 

Prosecutor Phillip Furhman said the plea deal — one that would have dismissed the armed criminal action charge and sentenced Morales to 30 years in prison — is no longer on the table. Second degree murder is a Class A felony and can result in life in prison.

Sweaney’s mother Shelley Larrick came to the hearing Monday, flanked by about 30 of her son’s friends and family. 

Following the hearing, Larrick said she felt “exhausted” but is “committed” to seeking justice for her son.

“This justice system is painfully slow and I knew that,” Larrick said, adding that she and her husband have become involved in an organization for parents of murdered children and have attended the past two annual conventions.

Shelley Larrick, mother of murder victim Chandler Sweaney, stands outside of the Greene County courthouse Monday. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

“I’m grateful that we have somebody behind bars because there’s lots of parents who don’t even have convictions. They don’t even know who killed their children,” Larrick said. “But today, after the last two years and seven and half months since my child was murdered, I was not surprised. Because I’ve learned that you have to be ready for anything and expect anything.”

What led to fatal shooting?

Police say on Feb. 1, 2021, Johnson and Morales went to Sweaney’s residence at the 2800 block of West Chestnut Expressway to rob Sweaney’s roommate, Rose, the drug dealer.

During that robbery, Sweaney was shot. 

Police believe Morales was the shooter. But Johnson and Rose were charged and convicted because of Missouri’s felony murder rule that a person is culpable of murder if they commit a felony or attempt to commit a felony and another person is killed as a result. 

Timothy Johnson's mug shot
Timothy Johnson (Booking photo by Greene County Sheriff’s Office)

According to court documents, Sweaney owned the home and used social media to find roommates. Rose was renting a room from Sweaney, but the two did not know each other prior to becoming roommates.

At the time of the shooting, Rose had been under federal investigation for months for drug trafficking and weapons charges. According to the federal indictment, the investigation began in October of 2020.

Larrick has been critical of federal prosecutors for not acting sooner and arresting Rose before her son was shot to death.

Rose, who was shot in the leg during the robbery, pleaded guilty in May to second-degree murder for Sweaney’s death.

This is Rickey Rose
Rickey Rose (Booking photo by Greene County Sheriff’s Office)

The plea agreement provides for a 10-year prison sentence with probation denied. The terms of the plea agreement required Rose to testify truthfully in Morales’ and Johnson’s cases.

Rose is also facing federal drug trafficking and weapons charges. 

Morales tries to fire his attorney

Public defender John Briggs told Judge Jerry Harmison that Briggs had spent hours with Morales at the jail on Friday and again on Sunday, trying to make Morales “understand the perils” of representing himself — or pro se — in a jury trial. 

Briggs said he talked to Morales about cross-examining witnesses and presenting evidence. 

“I told Mr. Morales he does have his constitutional right if he chooses,” Briggs said. “He has been consistent. … He wants to represent himself.”

Harmison gave Morales the same “test” he gives every defendant who says they want to represent themselves. Harmison asked him to explain the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule.

Judge Jerry Harmison

Morales could not answer the question. He also could not define hearsay.

Asked by the judge if he’s ever watched a jury trial, Morales said he saw a television show about the O.J. Simpson trial.

“I’m not picking on you,” Harmison said to Morales. “I want you to understand that you are at a significant disadvantage.”

Harmison went on to talk about the prosecutor, Philip Fuhrman, describing him as one of the “best and most experienced” prosecutors in Greene County. Harmison reminded Morales that, if convicted, Morales could be looking at life in prison. 

“Are you willing to bet your life you are able to beat him,” Harmison asked. “Do you really want to take on Mr. Fuhrman by yourself?”

Harmison told Morales he would be expected to follow the same rules and procedures as the prosecution, including the rules of evidence.

“You don’t know the rules of evidence,” Harmison said. “You might have the best defense in the world, but if you don’t know the rules of evidence, you are not going to get it to (the jury’s) ears.”

Harmison said he is unable to give legal advice to Morales, but “I’m strongly encouraging you.”

In the end, Morales decided to keep Briggs as his public defender.

Victim wanted to help those who struggled

The 30 or so people who came to court Monday to support Sweaney’s family all wore t-shirts bearing the words, “Do better. Be Better.”

After the hearing, Larrick explained it was just something she said a few times at her son’s funeral and his friends seemed to “latch onto” the phrase. 

“I said, ‘We all just have to do better, be better.’ I said it many times at the funeral, I guess,” she said. “His friends, I saw on Facebook afterwards, they were saying, ‘Do better. Be better.”

She described Sweaney as being a very bright young man who wanted to help others. He got very good grades in school, played football till he was 15, sang in the chamber choir and played tuba in band.

Because they had family who struggled with substance use, Larrick said she and her son were both active in Al-Anon and Alateen, support groups for family members.

Chandler Sweaney often spoke to youth groups about the dangers of alcohol and substance abuse. (Photo provided by Shelley Larrick)

“He would go to Burrell (Behavioral Health) and talk to youth, go to schools, and he would tell other kids about Alateen and what it was,” she said. “So the hard part is processing that the very thing that we’ve worked so hard to break the cycle and to help other people break that cycle — it’s the same group of people who got him killed, you know. It’s just hard to reconcile that.

“The root of this is still addiction because this roommate that he let in was an addict,” she said. “(Rose) was only there two weeks, but that’s the reason Paul Morales and Tim ever came into that home. Chandler just happened to be there.”

Though she wasn’t surprised Morales decided to not take a plea deal, Larrick said she prays Morales will “do the right thing and stand up and take accountability for what he’s done.”

“As I heard him talking up there, like, there’s still zero accountability,” she said, “because he thinks that he can still get out of it.”

After her son, Chandler Sweaney, was shot and killed in 2021, Shelley Larrick found his notebook. In it, Sweaney would write about what he was grateful for, including his health and healing. She brought the notebook to court on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (Photo by Jackie Rehwald)

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald