FREEHOLD, N.J. — A judge on Wednesday ordered Arthur E. Morgan III to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of being released on parole, for cutting his baby daughter's life short at age 2½ by tossing her into a stream to die in 2011.
State law dictated that Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mellaci impose a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole on Morgan for the murder of Tierra Morgan-Glover because the victim was a child — a factor that that would have qualified Morgan for execution before New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. Speaking to Morgan, Mellaci said if New Jersey still had the death penalty, "you would be candidate No. 1."
But the fact that the child was Morgan's own daughter made the crime that much more unspeakable. And the way he accomplished the killing made it seem even more horrific — he strapped the child into her pink-flowered car seat, tethered a five-pound metal car jack to the seat, threw the contraption into a stream in Shark River Park in Wall and left the crying child to die in the murky water as he drove away to a liquor store.
Before the sentence, Morgan argued he had been unfairly portrayed in the media and by the court.
Mellaci was not moved, calling this one the saddest cases he has ever been involved in. "There are no mitigating factors here," Mellaci said.
Morgan, 29, who was homeless at the time of the murder but whose last known address was in Eatontown, stood trial before Mellaci earlier this year.
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The jury convicted Morgan of the intentional murder of Tierra, who lived with her mother in Lakehurst, dismissing defense attorneys' arguments that the defendant's judgment was clouded, and that he simply placed his child in the stream to "let God decide her fate.''
The jury also convicted Morgan of child endangerment and interfering with the baby's custody by failing to return her to her mother on Nov. 21, 2011, the day she was murdered.
Morgan flashed a smile when the jury foreman announced the panel's verdict on April 3. And, he winked at prosecutors as he was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, donning one of the typically flashy suits he wore to court each day during the trial.
But on Wednesday, Morgan, a man who was said to have spent much of his earnings on Prada and Gucci clothing and accessories while he was living in his 1995 Cadillac Deville, was instead clad in a jail uniform as he stood before Mellaci to learn his fate.
During his trial, his attorneys, Deputy Public Defender Jeffrey Coghlan and Deputy Assistant Public Defender Ryan Moriarty, unsuccessfully tried to convince the jury that Morgan was distraught over how Tierra's mother was raising the child and that he simply placed Tierra in a stream in Shark River Park in Wall to let God decide her fate.
In arguing that Morgan should be convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter rather than murder, the defense attorneys suggested Morgan wasn't thinking clearly because he was beleaguered by his own homelessness, lack of sleep and loss of a job.
But First Assistant Prosecutor Marc LeMieux and Assistant Prosecutor Jordan Williams argued that Morgan planned the crime, pawning items beforehand and making arrangements to escape to California. They portrayed Morgan as a narcissistic, manipulative and controlling man who killed his daughter to get back at her mother, Imani Benton, for breaking off an engagement.
In stark contrast to the defense attorneys' portrayal of Morgan as a man worried about his baby, the prosecutors pointed out that Morgan bought expensive, designer clothing for himself rather than providing a home for the daughter he claimed to have so much concern for.
Morgan picked up Tierra from her mother on the afternoon of Nov. 21, 2011, saying he was going to take the girl to see "Happy Feet II," a film about dancing penguins. Instead, he brought her to Shark River Park, strapped her into her car seat, tethered the metal car jack to the seat and tossed the contraption from a bridge about 17 feet below into the stream.
He later would tell authorities that Tierra was still crying when he turned and walked away, leaving her in the stream to die.
Teenagers found Tierra's body in the stream, still strapped in the car seat, the following day, after Benton reported her daughter missing when Morgan failed to bring her home the night before. The child was wearing her bright pink pea coat that her mother dressed her in the day before.
As Tierra was taking her last breaths, Morgan met up with a friend, went to a liquor store and had some drinks before escaping to San Diego, where he was captured on Nov. 29, 2011, following a nationwide manhunt.
Being questioned by investigators following his capture, Morgan told them he had tethered the car jack to Tierra's car seat to weigh her down "like a ball and chain.''
Testimony at the trial included Benton's account of a letter Morgan had written to her from the San Diego jail after his capture in which he suggested the case be turned into a television movie.
"We're famous, infamous," Benton testified that Morgan had written in the letter. "Don't just let anyone play me in the TV movie.''