Less than a year after the fire that killed one of their sons, the parents of 17-year-old Jacob Matthew “Matt” Morgan sat behind him in love and support as he pleaded guilty to setting the fatal March 2015 blaze that killed his baby brother.
Morgan, who turns 18 next week, was originally charged with murder, homicide by child abuse and first-degree arson in the death of 14-month-old Joshua Alexander Hill. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to involuntary manslaughter, unlawful conduct toward a child and third-degree arson.
Circuit Court Judge Dan Hall sentenced Morgan to five years in prison for the manslaughter charge and 10 years for the unlawful conduct charge, with the sentences running consecutively. Hall also sentenced him to 15 years for the arson charge, which was suspended to five years’ probation. On the arson charge, Morgan pleaded guilty under what is called an Alford plea – accepting punishment but not admitting guilt – to setting the fire.
The teen’s family has maintained since his arrest that he didn’t kill his brother, whom he was babysitting the morning of March 6, 2015, when, prosecutors said, he set fire to a blanket in the bedroom where the baby was sleeping.
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“All he ever wanted was a brother,” Julie Hill Dover, Morgan’s mother, said during Tuesday’s plea hearing at the Moss Justice Center. “He got to enjoy his brother for 14 months, which is not long enough for any of us, but it’s the tragedy.”
Dover said the charges against her son are another tragedy, but one “he will get to come out the other end of stronger, knowing that so many people love him and support him.”
Myke Hill, Morgan’s stepfather, said he nor any of the other family members would have been at the proceedings during the last year if they believed Morgan killed his brother.
“The kid called his mom at work, crying because one of the newborn kittens was sick and he thought it was dying,” Hill said after the hearing. “I’m not gonna have any sheriff, any investigator tell me to my face that he’s a cold-blooded killer when he cries at Disney movies.”
Fire had two points of origin
Emergency responders went to the Catawba Church Road home about 8:30 a.m. on March 6 and found the mobile home fully engulfed in flames, Deputy 16th Circuit Solicitor Willy Thompson said. Morgan initially told investigators he woke up as his stepfather left to take his mother to work and then went back to sleep. He said he woke up later unable to breathe because the home was filled with smoke.
Morgan said he tried to get into the master bedroom, where Joshua was sleeping, but flames came out when he opened the door, Thompson said.
Investigators determined the fire had two points of origin, in the living room and the bedroom, Thompson said, noting that the two rooms were on nearly opposite sides of the home. Morgan initially said he believed space heaters in the home may have caused the fire, but divulged more information during a police interview days later, Thompson said.
“The defendant ultimately admitted that ... he had never gone back to sleep,” Thompson said, “that he was playing with tea candles and that he was lighting them up and had a fascination with fire.”
Morgan admitted during the second interview that he started a small fire in his bedroom about two weeks before the fatal house fire, Thompson said. He was able to control it and put it out without anyone knowing. He also admitted to dropping a tea candle in a blanket in the master bedroom the morning of the fatal fire, and setting fire to a string on one of the sofa pillows in the living room. He was barefoot and couldn’t stomp the fire out once it started getting out of control.
Morgan never went to the bedroom after setting the fire, Thompson said, and went outside and “observed” the blaze before going to a neighbor’s home to call for help.
“A very gentle soul”
Morgan occasionally wiped tears from his eyes as his parents and a family friend addressed the court. He told Hall that he loved his brother.
“I still do to this very day,” he said. “He was my best friend. To kill him would be killing a piece of myself. He was the only brother I ever had. I just wish I could have gotten to him in time.”
Morgan’s attorney, Deputy 16th Circuit Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough, described his client as “a very gentle soul” and said the case was “definitely one of the hardest cases I’ve ever had in my career.”
Barrowclough was confident the defense would have won on the murder and homicide charges if the case went to a jury. The arson charge, he said, would be more difficult to fight, and carries a 30-year minimum on conviction.
“The scientific evidence showed the fire had at least two, possibly three points of origin, which is indicative of arson,” Barrowclough said. “It was just one (case) that, no matter what happened, we weren’t gonna feel good about it.”
Morgan will serve his sentence in a minimum-security facility, where he will be housed with non-violent offenders and able to take classes and earn a degree, Barrowclough said.
Hill said Tuesday’s plea brought little closure to their family.
“The closure with our son’s passing – that’s gonna be a grief that’s gonna stay with us until the day we die,” he said. “I’ll never get over losing my little boy. I’ll never get over my other son being accused of the loss of our little boy.
“We’re as set as we can be,” he continued. “The pain will never go away. Hopefully, it will lessen in time.”