FREEHOLD, N.J. — The lawyer for a man charged with killing his 2-year-old daughter by tossing her into a creek while still strapped into her car seat said Wednesday the real question for the jury is not whether he did it but whether he was thinking clearly that night.
Arthur Morgan III of Eatontown is accused of weighing down the seat with a tire-changing jack so it would sink. He is charged with killing his daughter, Tierra Morgan-Glover, in what prosecutors claim was a premeditated, jealous rage because the girl's mother would not get back together with him.
The child's body was found partially submerged in a creek at a Jersey shore park on Nov. 22, 2011, one tiny black and purple sneaker sticking out of the water.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Ryan Moriarty told the jurors their task is to decide "what form of homicide applies to this defendant."
"We're not asking you to presume Arthur Morgan innocent of responsibility," he said. "It is our contention that he did not act knowingly and purposefully on that day but, rather, recklessly. Can your ability to think clearly be affected by lack of sleep, losing your job, staying in your car? By homelessness, by the end of a major relationship in your life?"
It matters in terms of the sentence he could receive. If convicted of "knowing and purposeful" murder, Morgan could be sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole. If convicted of a lesser charge, such as reckless manslaughter, he could get a sentence with the possibility of parole in as little as five years.
"Was Tierra thrown off a bridge, or was she placed there, still alive, for God to determine the outcome?" Moriarty said.
Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Jordan Williams told the jury that Morgan was driven by extreme jealousy and anger toward the girl's mother, Imani Benton. She had refused to let him see Tierra the previous weekend because he was homeless and living in his car, Williams told the jury.
And Morgan suspected Benton had a new boyfriend, Williams said.
Despite her initial reluctance, Benton eventually agreed to let Morgan take Tierra to see "Happy Feet 2," a movie about a dancing penguin. As he drove away with the girl strapped in the pink car seat that Benton had provided, he yelled at Benton, angry over the missed visit and suspicious she was seeing someone else, the prosecutor said.
Instead of taking Tierra to the movies, he drove around for four hours, calling her mother 57 times on a cellphone before making his way to Shark River Park in Wall Township, about 20 miles north of Benton's Lakehurst home.
Authorities say he attached a car jack to the back of her car seat and tossed her into the chilly waters of a creek inside the park. Then he went to a liquor store, bought alcohol for rum and cokes that he downed with a friend and caught a train to begin his escape to San Diego, where he was tracked down and arrested days later by a fugitive task force.
"This is Arthur Morgan," Williams told the jury. "He had a beautiful, adorable daughter. He no longer has a daughter because he decided to kill her. He murdered her by dumping her in a creek. She was just a little girl. He dumped her in that dirty, cold stream and just walked away. She went into that water wide awake, alert and helpless, old enough to know what was happening to her and unable to do anything about it."
The prosecutor said Morgan gave a statement to authorities in San Diego after his capture indicating "he could have done it that way" when asked if he had tossed the child into the creek.
Asked why he attached a tire jack to the car seat, Morgan replied, "To keep her where she was," Williams told the jury.
"Like an anchor?" the detective asked.
"Yeah," Morgan replied, according to police. "Like a ball and chain."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC