FREEHOLD, N.J. (AP) — After Arthur Morgan III was arrested and charged with killing his 2-year-old daughter by tossing her into a New Jersey creek, still snugly strapped into her car seat, the child's mother thought he couldn't hurt her family anymore.
She was wrong. From behind the bars of his jail cell in San Diego, where he was awaiting a return to face murder charges in New Jersey, Morgan wrote a letter to Imani Benton, accusing her family of heinous depravity and seeming to taunt her. In the letter read aloud Thursday at his trial, Morgan told Benton she looked good in video he saw from Tierra Morgan-Glover's funeral and said he didn't want his daughter growing up around people he considered unfit.
"Incest, child rape, drinking. No, no, no. Not my baby. Not our baby," he wrote. Superior Court Judge Anthony Mellaci Jr. refused to let the jury hear the accusations, noting that both sides in the case agreed before the trial not to raise the matter. The letter did not specify which family members Morgan accused of abuse, nor did it say against whom the alleged abuse was carried out.
Morgan, 29, of Eatontown, is charged with killing his daughter in November 2001 in what prosecutors claim was a premeditated, jealous rage because Benton would not get back together with him. Benton testified that days before the child's death, she broke up with Morgan for the last time, returning jewelry including an engagement ring to him.
Tierra's body was pulled from a creek in a park about 20 miles from her Lakehurst home, one tiny black and purple sneaker sticking out of the water. The child was still strapped into her pink car seat, which was weighed down with a heavy metal car tire jack, which prosecutors said was done to ensure it would sink.
Morgan's state of mind the day of his daughter's death is a key part of the case. In his opening statement, defense attorney Ryan Moriarty indicated Morgan would not deny responsibility for Tierra's death but told the jurors their task is to decide "what form of homicide applies to this defendant."
If convicted of "knowing and purposeful" murder, Morgan could get life in prison without parole. But if convicted of a lesser form of homicide, like reckless manslaughter, he could be freed in as little as five years.
Morgan's letter also said he saw video footage on the Internet of Benton leaving the church where Tierra's funeral was held, telling her how good she looked and pretending she was leaving the church after marrying him. And he also said he wished Benton had come with him when he took Tierra on the day she died.
"You should have came with us," Morgan wrote in a portion that was read to the jury. "It would have been so different, I'm sure. That was the plan, to go as a family." Benton said that sentence was not an invitation to see a movie — his stated reason for taking the child on the day she died.
"If I would have went to the movie, we wouldn't have gone to the movie," she testified. "We all would have died." Testimony about the letter came after Benton tearfully described to the jury how she learned of the girl's death, hours after her father angrily sped off with their daughter in his car.
Benton said she called police after Morgan was four hours overdue bringing Tierra home. Eight hours earlier, Benton said, Morgan had berated her, saying she wasn't a good mother and yelling that she was a whore.
Police came and took a report but returned hours later, this time with an FBI agent who asked about a specific item of clothing Tierra was wearing, a pink Hello Kitty hat. "I never told police about the hat," she testified. "When they asked, I knew something was wrong. I started hyperventilating, I had a panic attack and I would end up in the hospital."
Prosecutors said Morgan gave a statement to authorities in San Diego, where he was arrested, indicating "he could have done it that way" when asked if he had tossed the child into the creek. In her testimony, Benton described being in a hospital, where an officer showed her a photo and asked if she could identify the person in it. The photo showed Tierra's lifeless body, her eyes closed, Benton said.
One of the items the child was wearing when she left with her father that morning was a necklace, Benton testified. It had a pendant that read, "Daddy's Little Girl."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC