Seven years ago, when Trayvon Martin was ten, and more closely resembled the image of the smiling child that the first public pictures of him depicted than the strapping 17-year-old teenager gunned down last month in Florida, Howard Morgan was Trayvon Martin, on a February night.
An African American male out late and on his way home in his own neighborhood, Morgan he looked suspicious, prompting four white, inexperienced Chicago Department officers to roll up on him at a West Side intersection. They lit up the ex-CPD cop’s van, and with flashing blue lights blinking all around the corner at 19th and S. Lawndale Ave., they furiously pumped 28, 9-mm bullets into his prostrate body. As George Zimmerman has been reported to have said he was the night the uncertified neighborhood watchman shot Martin dead, CPD Officers Timothy Finley, John Wrigley, Nick Olsen and Eric White were probably also very afraid the night they shot Morgan.
But unlike Martin, Morgan, then a 54-year-old Burlington Northern Railroad investigator, did not die where he lay that cold night of February 21, 2005. He survived his many wounds and lived to tell his side of the story.
“The police thought he would die, but God wouldn’t make it that easy for them,” said Rosalind Morgan, who has been crusading for her husband’s exoneration since he was shot. “He would not allow them tell to be able to only have their side of the story told.”
Still, next week, the miracle of his survival may be rewarded with a life of misery behind the walls of an Illinois prison. That’s because Morgan, now a 61-year-old grandfather, was convicted in January of the attempted murder of the four cops who shot him. He faces sentencing on that conviction April 5, in Cook County court room at 26th and California, 11 blocks south of the Mount Sinai Hospital emergency room where his life was saved seven years ago.
A jury that included 10 whites and two African Americans brought back a guilty verdict January 28, in less than four hours. The panel was not allowed to hear evidence about Morgan’s first trial in 2007, when he was acquitted on the charge of discharging a weapon, the linchpin count to prove attempted murder. Judge Clayton Crane, who declared a mistrial in those proceedings, will now decide Morgan’s fate next week.
In addition to a request for a retrial and a planned motion for acquittal, attorney Randolph Stone, who joined Herschella Conyers to defend Morgan in both trials, said they will appeal the conviction “to the Supreme Court if necessary.” He said he may also ask for bail pending appeal depending on the sentence Morgan receives. Terms ranging from as little as 20 years to a maximum of hundreds of years define the range of possibilities.
Speaking by telephone Friday (March 30), Stone added he is “more confident than not” at the prospects of a successful appeal, identifying four prominent issues among its arguments, led by the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.
“We think double jeopardy applies here based on the acquittals in the first case,” Randolph said. “We will also have jury selection issues owing to the number of African Americans who were excluded” to the detriment of Morgan’s defense. The destruction of the van Morgan was driving that night while he recuperated in the hospital, thus denying defense access to evidence it may have yielded will be questioned as well.
In their testimony, Finley, Wrigley, Olsen and White testified they interdicted Morgan’s van going the wrong way on 19th without headlights. They said when they detained him outside the van and when they began to search him, Morgan pulled his weapon and began firing.
Morgan on the stand, told a story of stopping for blue lights on his way home, only to have officers confront and remove him from his vehicle, pull his 9-mm pistol from his belt and begin shooting until he blacked out.
Three of the officers suffered minor injuries, but no evidence in either trial revealed Morgan as the one who wounded them. Nor has any substantial motive been ascribed to account for why Morgan would come out shooting during a routine traffic stop.
“We will also challenge the prosecution’s reliance on ‘other crime evidence,’” Stone said, adding prosecutors identified the fact that Morgan had an expired firearm ID card as their motive for attempting to kill the four officers.
“We will argue that that is not relevant and unduly prejudicial to Mr. Morgan,” said Stone, who will plans to make and argue his motion prior to sentencing.
The fear that engulfed Morgan’s life that fateful night now grips Rosalind Morgan to the point she is often afraid in her own home these days. She and the rest of Morgan’s family are also afraid of what may happen in court next Thursday. They fear his going to prison.
But despite her fears, Rosalind Morgan is confident in her faith. She has organized rallies, a YouTube video and a www.freehowardmorgan.com website dedicated to freeing him. She says God has a mission for her husband, and it is not a future of languishing away for years in the mire of the state’s penal system. Howard Morgan currently sits in Cook County Jail, where he has been since Feb. 21, when his initial sentencing hearing was postponed.
“Whether he is sentenced next week and have to go to prison or not,” Rosalind Morgan said, “Howard will be exonerated. God will exonerate him. God did not save his life just to have him get lost in the system.”