Sometimes even after a court is finished with a guilty plea and a sentence of 15 years in prison, the only person who really knows what happened is the shackled accused. This time, it was a 17-year-old kid about 120 pounds, with an emotional age even less.
Right to the end Tuesday, in a courtroom where prosecutors said he stood there and watched in March 2015 as a fire engulfed the trailer with his baby brother inside, Jacob Matthew “Matt” Morgan claimed he loved his brother and tried to save him.
Prosecutors say he stood outside and watched as 14-month-old Joshua Hill died the worst death imaginable inside.
Morgan denied being a monster, even after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and unlawful conduct toward a child. Morgan also pleaded guilty under what is called an Alford plea – accepting punishment but not admitting guilt – to setting the fire.
And that is where this brutal death of a toddler dying from smoke inhalation turned into guilt.
“I wish I could have gotten to him in time,” Matt Morgan sobbed in court.
The fire – even defense experts found after Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough fought the charges for a year – was set in at least 2 places, and maybe three. If Morgan went to trial and beat the murder rap that was plea bargained down to manslaughter, and beat the child abuse charge that he faced because he was babysitting, the fire still was the huge wall of flame that loomed over him.
First-degree arson carries a minimum of 30 years in prison. If a jury bought that Morgan did not want to kill his brother, and that this teen who by all accounts is not developed in his brain was interrogated beyond his limited ability to fight back before confessing, there was no getting around the fire that the evidence showed almost certainly was intentional.
And set in multiple spots.
Matt Morgan might beat the murder charge, but the fire would no doubt be with him for 30 years in a prison among South Carolina’s worst killers.
So Morgan pleaded guilty and accepted 15 years in prison in what his lawyer said will be a less hostile penitentiary than the ones that house the most violent offenders. He pleaded guilty even as his stepfather who is the dead baby’s father, and his mother who is the dead brother’s mother, told the court that they still believe Matt Morgan is innocent. James Hill, the stepfather, said that Matt is like Joseph in the Bible – falsely accused and imprisoned.
The mother, Julie Dover, wept and said that although the evidence against her son is “horrible,” she just doesn’t believe it.
What mattered, though, was a judge accepted the plea deal of 15 years and the facts as the police and prosecutors presented them Tuesday, 11 months after toddler Joshua Hill died.
Morgan did not use the cellphone in his pocket to call 911, 16th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Willy Thompson said, and Morgan started the fire at both ends of the mobile home – including one fire just feet from where his baby brother lay asleep. Morgan had set a non-fatal fire two weeks before.
“He had a fascination with fire,” is how Thompson described Matt Morgan.
A neighbor called 911. It was a cop and firefighters who tried to save the child – but could not.
Matt Morgan was sentenced to prison Tuesday – denying what happened to the end as he was led crying into a holding cell.
Joshua Hill, only 14 months old, cries no more.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065