Men like Edward Patrick Morgan Jr. are every woman's nightmare. The problem is, the women sometimes don't realize it until it's too late. Good-looking, smooth-talking and with an instinct for who's vulnerable, men like Morgan--who had three sex-assault convictions before being arrested last week on murder charges--are best left behind bars.
That explains why many people were outraged to learn that the Orange County district attorney's office refused last year to file rape charges against Morgan--a case that could have meant his fourth conviction. Had the D.A. done so, the argument goes, Morgan might have been convicted and in jail and Leanora Annette Wong--who was sexually assaulted and killed May 19 outside an Orange nightclub--would still be alive.
A seemingly simple equation: A woman is killed, and a known sex offender is the only suspect. The conclusion must be that the system betrayed us once again by going easy on a dangerous criminal.
That lament is understandable.
It's just that the D.A. isn't the bad guy in this case.
I talked at some length last week to Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles J. Middleton, who made the decision not to prosecute Morgan last year. It's not as though Middleton or his underlings mistook Morgan for a Boy Scout.
Middleton patiently explained last year's decision not to prosecute Morgan, as well as each of three previous cases in which Morgan was involved. Only in the first case, in 1984, Middleton said, were the facts clear-cut enough to press for the most serious charges.
The Times has already reported at length on Middleton's decision not to pursue the 1993 case against Morgan. Middleton opted to let parole officials send him back to prison for a year on a parole violation. I asked Middleton if he's second-guessed himself now that Morgan has been arrested again.
"Not really," he said. "I look back and we did what we had to do. If we had gone to trial on it, I believe he would have been out on the street. . . . Knowing we'd never get a conviction (in the 1993 case) and, if the judge wouldn't let his priors (Morgan's previous sex-assault convictions) in, we'd have problems. So there was the chance for parole violation and we took that."
The victim in last year's case admitted to drinking a six-pack before the assault and she agreed to let Morgan, a stranger, pick her up while she was walking. Her initial report to police contained outright lies, Middleton said; any defense attorney could have had a field day with her story.
Nevertheless, Middleton said, prosecutors believed her story about the rape.
"The hardest job in working this unit is having to explain to the family or a victim why we're not filing a case," he said. "That's the hardest job, especially when we believe the victim."
If the woman was willing to go to trial, I asked, why not take a chance on convicting someone you know is potentially dangerous to others?
"I look at it like this," Middleton said. "When you take a case you know you're not going to win and can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, and it's just one that you're singling out, it's tantamount to a misappropriation of government funds. You're taking court time, the victim's time, and you know what the result's going to be." Middleton discussed Morgan's earlier convictions, pointing out how vexing rape cases can be. In 1991, prosecutors dropped a more serious charge in favor of a lesser one.
"Right before the trial," Middleton said, "the girl's stepmother calls and says the victim has major problems with exaggerating to get her way. Major credibility problems. Then the stepmother says the girl had been molested by her stepfather, brother, cousin, uncle and her cousin's friend." In addition, the girl recanted some portions of her story to police.
In another of Morgan's convictions, in 1984, prosecutors filed a lesser charge because the victim couldn't identify her masked assailant. But because she had previously dated Morgan and, therefore, knew him, the jury might have expected her to be able to identify him, even with the mask, Middleton said.
I asked if the D.A.'s office was only taking "safe" cases to court to pad its winning percentage. While winnability is a major consideration, he said, "we do file cases that are marginal. Marginals are the ones that go to trial, generally. We do win a lot, and we lose some. When we get to the point where we know which ones, from experience, we are just not going to win, there's no sense in taking victims through all that process. . . . If we can't look the victims in the face and say, 'We can do it,' we'd be lying to them."
In a perfect world, all rapists would go to jail. No one is more deserving of lengthy "three strikes" incarceration than sexual predators.
Sure, Middleton could have taken his chances on convicting Morgan last year. But if his experience with jurors over the years and his knowledge of the case convinced him he couldn't win, what would have been accomplished?
The D.A.'s job is not to play charades. Taking a case to trial you can't prove is a charade. That's why I can't join the chorus that says Leanora Wong would be alive today if Morgan had been tried last year.
A final question for Middleton:
What's your opinion of Morgan, I asked. "He's a dangerous guy, no question about it," Middleton said. "The problem is proving it to a jury."
\o7 Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.\f7