Sobs pulsed through the 17-year-old body of Jacob Matthew Morgan on Tuesday as police and prosecutors described him as a devious, fire-loving killer. The teen clasped his hands together and prayed for a judge to set him free, then almost passed out when he was ordered back to jail to await trial on murder and arson charges.
Fourteen-month-old Joshua Hill was the victim of his brother’s fascination with fire, investigators said in court, a fascination that led to the March fire at the family’s home and left Joshua gasping for breath.
A toddler dead from smoke, authorities say, because Morgan started a fire for the pure thrill of it.
Prosecutors say Morgan never called 911, even though he had a cellphone in his pocket the whole time, and then lied about the fire and trying to help his brother.
Morgan wept as his lawyer told a judge that police had botched the investigation by failing to test electrical heaters, and then subjected the teen – who has learning disabilities and can barely read and write – to almost four hours of interrogation, after which Morgan confessed to setting the fire.
But that confession, said Morgan’s lawyer, is false and was coerced. Worse, public defender B.J. Barrowclough said, it was not recorded – despite police having the technology to record from their patrol cars, using body cameras, cellphones, almost anything, anywhere.
Yet police chose not to videotape the confession of a teenaged kid accused of murder by fire in the death of his own brother? It seems certainly preposterous, if almost inconceivable.
Who is Jacob Morgan? Is he a stone-cold killer at 17, a classic violent, malicious brother who set two fires that day in the mobile home after his parents left him to watch Joshua – after having set a fire two weeks before that did not kill anyone? Is he a scheming killer?
Or is Jacob Morgan the teen who who fell to the courtroom floor and wailed, “No, I didn’t do it!” after a judge ruled that he will face murder charges and potentially life in prison. Is he the kid who cried through the court hearing because he has no clue how he ended up in shackles and handcuffs and leg irons, surrounded by guards with guns?
Judging by Tuesday’s hearing, a jury likely will have to decide. Neither side appears ready to budge on their account of the events that led to Joshua’s death. Defense lawyers are itching to go to trial, and prosecutors are confident enough to give them one.
Morgan’s mother and stepfather, Julie and Myke Hill, say he is not capable of murder. Myke Hall, who is Joshua’s father, said if he thought “for one second” that Jacob killed Joshua on purpose, he would not defend him.
The family and their lawyer say police had to find someone to blame for the fire, and the hapless teen who has autism and other problems finally succumbed to the good-cop, bad-cop routine by the state agent and deputies.
But William Keller, the State Law Enforcement Division fire investigator who handled the case, and veteran prosecutor Willy Thompson say Morgan is no innocent. He loved the flames, the power and the thrill and the carnage, they say, so much that it ended with his brother in a tiny body bag.
Morgan lied to try to cover up the crime, Keller said, then came clean when caught in the lie. The interrogation was how police get information, he said, after a teen who kills tries to weasel out of responsibility for his crime.
Thompson’s quiet words shook the courtroom walls: “Jacob Morgan knew that child was going to die.”
Morgan used “meanness” and had “a warped fascination with fire,” Thompson said, and he watched the flames spread from one of the two fires he set.
If a jury believes that Jacob Morgan is the teen described by Thompson and Keller, he will spend 30 years – maybe the rest of his life – in prison.
If a jury sees him as the confused, learning-disabled teen depicted by his family and his lawyer, he will go home in months or years after a trial.
Either way, his 14-month-old brother will still be dead.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org