Jacob Morgan collapsed to the floor crying Tuesday after a judge ruled prosecutors can move forward with murder and arson charges against the 17-year-old, who is accused of setting a March fire that killed his toddler brother.
The teenager had to be helped from the courtroom by deputies after the hearing, during which a State Law Enforcement Division investigator testified that Morgan gave conflicting statements on how the fire started but admitted to starting it.
Morgan’s attorney asked Magistrate Judge Dan Malphrus to dismiss the charges or reduce them to involuntary manslaughter, citing a lack of malice. He also questioned the process by which the teen was interrogated.
“Our son was in there with two large police officers with guns, with their scary faces in his face scaring him,” Julie Hill said after the hearing. “He’s an autistic child, and an autistic child you can convince to say anything you want him to.”
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Morgan is charged with murder and arson in the death of his 14-month-old brother, Joshua, who died in the March 6 fire at the family’s Catawba Church Road home southeast of Rock Hill. Morgan was outside the home when authorities arrived, and was charged several days later after he and his parents were interviewed by detectives.
SLED Special Agent William Keller testified that Morgan initially “stuck with his story” of falling asleep on the living room couch after his parents left, waking up to see smoke filling the house, and running out the front door before going back in to try to rescue his brother.
Investigators found two “separate and unconnected” areas of origin in the home, he said, and a “regular-shaped burn pattern” leading from the bed in which Joshua was sleeping to the bedroom doorway.
During Morgan’s interview, Keller said, his story changed from his waking up to smoke, to his throwing a couch pillow toward an electric heater on the floor because he was upset with his parents for waking him before they left, to his using a lighter to burn a string off the pillow, and finally to his lighting the pillow on fire and throwing it into the air.
“Totally unsolicited to us, he said he had always had a fascination with fire,” Keller said. “He had actually set fires as a youth.”
Morgan told Keller he liked lighting tealight candles and carrying them around the house. On the morning of the fire, Keller said, Morgan carried one into the bedroom where Joshua was sleeping and dropped it, causing a small fire on a blanket just a few seconds before starting the fire with the pillow in the living room.
Nothing in the investigation indicated space heaters in the bedroom or living room caused the fire, Keller said, but he acknowledged that the heaters were never inspected.
Morgan’s attorney, 16th Circuit Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough, questioned the interrogation process, specifically the interviewing of Morgan so soon after a traumatic event and the lack of video or audio recordings of the interview.
Barrowclough asked Judge Malphrus to dismiss all charges or find probable cause only on involuntary manslaughter, saying malice wasn’t present in the starting of the fire.
“Basically, what has been presented here in court that links Mr. Morgan to setting these fires are some of the statements he allegedly made,” Barrowclough said.
Sixteenth Circuit Deputy Solicitor Willy Thompson balked at that idea, saying malice can be inferred by an act of “extreme recklessness.”
“To start a fire in that room, as he admits, and then walk away without trying to extinguish that fire, and immediately start another fire in the living room and then claim it’s an accident ... that’s extreme recklessness,” Thompson said. “There is much more here than probable cause.”
Morgan, who held his head and cried silently at times during Tuesday’s hearing, cried audibly, “No, please!” before falling to the floor after Malphrus said prosecutors could move forward with murder and arson charges.
Deborah Morgan maintained her grandson’s innocence after the hearing.
“That was all lies; the lawyer stood there and proved it,” she said. “I know my grandson, and I know that he loved that baby more than he loved his own life. That baby was his life.”
Morgan’s family took issue with Keller’s testimony, including the allegation that Morgan was fascinated with fire.
“He maybe set some small fires like leaves on fire, but what child doesn’t?” Deborah Morgan said. “All children will light little fires if they get a chance to ... but they’re not going to kill anybody with them.”
Julie Hill held her husband’s hand after the hearing as they told reporters they believe Morgan had no role – accidental or intentional – in Joshua’s death.
The family had experienced electrical problems in the mobile home before the fire, Myke Hill said, which their landlord never tended to.
“That’s why we had to use heaters in the first place,” Julie Hill said. “They wouldn’t fix the heating issue. I smelled smoke the night prior to this happening.”
The case will be heard by a York County grand jury in June.
Teddy Kulmala • 803-329-4082