On Tuesday, 61-year-old Howard Morgan will go before an Illinois appeals court, seeking the reversal of his conviction and 40-year sentence on attempted murder of the four police officers who shot him.
According to his family, Morgan, himself a former Chicago police officer, was driving home from his job as a senior patrolman for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad when he was pulled over a block from his house by a pair of police officers shortly after 12:45 a.m. on February 21, 2005 for driving the wrong way on a one-way street with his headlights off.
Morgan said he identified himself as a police officer to Chicago police officers John Wrigley and Timothy Finley, but that they didn’t believe him. Morgan is African-American. Finley and Wrigley are white, as are the two officers who next pulled up to the scene: Nicolas Olsen and Eric White.
What happened next is a matter of who you believe.
Morgan says he was dragged out of his van and forced to the ground as he tried to produce his identification, and that one of the officers noticed his service revolver, a Glock 9mm pistol, and yelled “gun!” After the gun was taken from his waistband by one of the officers, Morgan says the shooting began.
The officers say Morgan fired multiple shots at them, forcing them to fire back.
In the end, Morgan was hit 28 times: 21 times in the back, and 7 in the front. He was hospitalized and underwent extensive surgery. But he survived.
Morgan was charged with four counts of attempted murder, four counts of aggravated battery of a police officer, and two counts of discharging a firearm.
The lone eyewitness, Charice Rush, testified at Morgan’s 2007 trial that she saw the officers “snatch” Morgan from his van and “force him onto one knee,” and that she heard one officer say, “oh shit, he has a gun” before the officers open fire, while Morgan was on the ground. Rush said she never saw Morgan fire a weapon.
According to Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing Morgan’s wife, Rosalind, Morgan’s van was riddled with bullets, and bullets were lodged in the walls and furniture of houses near the scene. But the jury never saw the van, which police ordered destroyed prior to the trial.
“While he’s in the hospital fighting for his life, they destroyed the van that was riddled with bullets,” said Crump in a Monday evening interview with theGrio. “They ordered it demolished. Chicago police destroyed evidence.”
The jury acquitted Morgan of discharging his weapon and on the aggravated battery charges, and the judge declared a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on the attempted murder charges.
The state of Illinois retried Morgan in 2012, with the same prosecutor, State Attorney Dan Groth, and in front of the same judge, Clayton Crane. Morgan was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison; given his age, effectively a life sentence.
“Sixty years old, no criminal history, and the judge sentenced him to 40 years,” Crump said. “The [officers] claimed he shot at them. No evidence was ever produced that he fired a shot. One officer claimed a month later that there was a bullet in his vest, but when they came to court, [they produced] no vest, just a replica.”
A Change.org petition containing more than 15,000 signatures calls on Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and Chicago congressman Danny Davis to “help free Howard Morgan,” based on what the signers call violations of his constitutional rights.
Morgan’s supporters say police produced just 3 of the 28 bullets retrieved from Morgan’s body at trial – not enough to show “whether or not the police officers who shot Mr. Morgan shot him with his own gun after taking it from him.”
Following the sentencing in April 2012, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police posted a statement saying the officers involved in the shooting incident “were fortunate to have survived the seventeen rounds that Howard Morgan fired at them on February 21, 2005,” adding: “Officer John Wrigley was shot in the chest, but was saved by his bulletproof vest.” The post included a lengthy statement from Officer Wright, accusing Morgan of “manipulating” people into believing he did nothing wrong, and of “Hid[ing] behind the racial fears of our community and … manipulate[ing] organizations into believing that police misconduct and corruption were the cause of me and other [o]fficers being shot that night with your firearm.”
Morgan’s appeal will be based on what his attorneys and supporters say is double jeopardy in the 2012 retrial, and their allegations of destruction of evidence. They argue that the judge erred in the second trial by ruling that Morgan’s defense attorneys were barred from telling the jury of his acquittal on the gun and assault charges in the earlier trial.
“I’m hoping that the attorney, [Cook County Assistant Public Defender] Lester Finkle, representing my husband will be able to let the appeals judge know without a reasonable doubt that he is innocent,” Rosalind Morgan told theGrio Monday night. “He was already acquitted of ever firing his weapon in the first trial. They retried him and the trial attorneys were barred from telling the jury anything about the first acquittal. So I’m praying and I’m hoping tomorrow that justice will prevail for my husband. Because he’s in Dixon prison and he’s slowly dying there.”
Mrs. Morgan said her two daughters and three grandchildren “miss [Morgan] very much.”
“It’s very painful to go see him” in prison, she adds, “because I know what happens when I leave.” She said her husband isn’t well, can barely walk, and is subjected to humiliating strip searches after each family visit.
But she says she remains hopeful that justice will be done.
“I believe that victory will come,” she said. “And when a person is found not guilty of shooting their weapon then how can you say this man is guilty in the next jury?”
‘The reality of it is there is no way that we can let these inconsistent verdicts stand; to let this complete miscarriage of justice stand, and tell people to respect the judicial system,” adds Crump. “People in Chicago have to be outraged. They have given him a death sentence.”
The hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Central Time. Crump says Rosalind Morgan plans to continue the fight for her husband whatever the outcome.
“Rosalind Morgan will not go away,” says Crump. “Howard Morgan is a police officer for God’s sakes. If this can happen to him, what about your brother or father or cousin?”
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @TheReidReport.