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Update: Verdict in Priscilla Morgan trial was delivered incorrectly

Tim Chitwood

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comPriscilla Morgan, center, is escorted into Superior Court Thursday to hear the verdict in her murder trial for the May 2014 stabbing death of her boyfriend Anthony Murray. The jury found Morgan not guilty of the malice murder and the felony murder charges, but found her guilty of aggravated assault. Sentencing is October 14 in Judge Art Smith III's courtroom.  10.08.15
ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comPriscilla Morgan, center, is escorted into Superior Court Thursday to hear the verdict in her murder trial for the May 2014 stabbing death of her boyfriend Anthony Murray. The jury found Morgan not guilty of the malice murder and the felony murder charges, but found her guilty of aggravated assault. Sentencing is October 14 in Judge Art Smith III's courtroom. 10.08.15 rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

Update: Before a judge sentenced Priscilla Morgan to serve 15 years in prison for the fatal stabbing of boyfriend Anthony Murray, court testimony revealed Wednesday that the verdict in her murder and aggravated assault trial was incorrectly rendered.

Morgan had faced charges of murder, aggravated assault and using a knife to commit a felony. The verdict as announced Oct. 8 was guilty of aggravated assault and not guilty on all other counts.

But jurors later complained the jury foreman got it wrong. They actually found Morgan guilty of using a knife to commit a felony. The foreman had checked the wrong box on the verdict form.

Attorneys that day did not ask Judge Art Smith III to poll individual jurors to confirm their verdict, so the jury was dismissed. Upon learning of the error, Smith decided nothing could be done to fix it. The verdict stood.

Had Morgan been convicted of that last count, it would have added five years to her sentence, as the law requires that time to be served consecutively to any other sentence.

The sentence Smith gave her Wednesday was 20 years in prison with 15 to serve and the rest on probation. The judge gave her credit for the 17 months she has been in jail since Murray’s stabbing on May 18, 2014.

Morgan’s trial defense was that Murray had charged at her with a knife, so she used a knife to defend herself when she stabbed him.

Morgan, who did not testify during her trial, addressed the court for the first time during her sentencing hearing, apologizing to Murray’s family.

“I just want his family to know how sorry I am. I’m truly sorry,” she said, crying. “If I could just change that day, I would. My heart is not like that. I’m not that type of person.”

Her testimony followed that of her mother and father, who now are caring for her three daughters ages 15, 14 and 11. They said the girls need their mother.

“I can’t give those girls what they really need,” said Annie Harris, Morgan’s mother, who also apologized to Murray’s family.

 “There’s no way in the world we would want anything like this,” she said, calling the stabbing a “tragic mistake.”

Her husband of 42 years, Lawrence Harris, said he’s 63 and his wife is 62, and they now have five minor children to care for in their home.

“My grandkids need their mother,” he said, adding, “I know my daughter is innocent and we need her at home.”

Murray’s mother, Bessie Murray, said she has grandchildren who will never see their father again. “My son has two children. He will never see his children anymore.”

Defense attorney Stacey Jackson tried to persuade Smith to give Morgan a sentence of probation with credit for time served in jail.

“The jury has spoken,” he said. “There’s no murder case here.”

Prosecutor Wesley Lambertus wanted Smith to give Morgan the maximum of 20 years in prison. The sentence range for an aggravated assault involving “family violence” carries a minimum of three years.

Lambertus argued that Morgan wanted Murray to pay for having earlier hit her in the face, busting her lip.

He noted that Morgan initially lied to police, claiming someone else stabbed Murray during a fight, and her knife punctured his chest with enough force to crack a rib and puncture his lung, aorta and pulmonary artery.

In delivering the sentence, Smith said he had to consider the jury’s verdict that Morgan “knowingly” assaulted Murray, resulting in his death.

“In this case the victim is no longer in life. His family continues to suffer,” the judge said.

Original trial story: Priscilla Morgan was facing life in prison if convicted of murder in the fatal stabbing of her 30-year-old boyfriend, Anthony Murray.

But after a weeklong trial, a Muscogee County jury Thursday found her not guilty of murder and not guilty of using a knife to commit a crime. She was convicted only of aggravated assault, a felony that carries a penalty of one to 20 years in prison.

With her sentencing set for 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, Defense Attorney Stacey Jackson now must fight to get her the least sentence possible.

That decision is solely within the discretion of Superior Court Judge Art Smith III, who will hear arguments from Jackson and Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus before he decides. Either side may call witnesses during the penalty phase.

Jackson said his client has no previous felony convictions that would affect her sentence.

Jurors deliberated about four hours before rendering their verdict. At times their discussion became so lively their raised voices could be heard in the hallway outside the jury room.

Morgan claimed Murray picked up a kitchen knife as they argued in their Rice Street home on May 18, 2014, so she also grabbed a knife with which to defend herself. She told police her knife penetrated Murray’s chest as he charged at her.

Lambertus argued the stab wound showed Morgan more likely was the aggressor. A medical examiner testified the blade cracked a rib and punctured Murray’s lung, aorta and pulmonary artery. He bled to death in minutes.

The reaction

After the verdict, Lambertus said only that he respected the jury’s decision.

Jackson said he was not sure why jurors chose to render a split verdict. The trial involved 22 witnesses and 42 pieces of evidence, and many factors could have influenced jurors’ reasoning. “So it’s hard to say what was the linchpin of their decision,” he said.

Most people believe you have a right to defend yourself if assaulted, he said, but this was an instance in which no independent witnesses were present, only Morgan and Murray, so jurors had to consider events leading up to the confrontation.

Among those events was a neighborhood party on Walker Street, just around the corner from the couple’s Rice Street home in Oakland Park. It was hosted by a mutual friend who during the trial testified Murray had become increasingly jealous upon learning Morgan once had sex with the party hostess and another woman.

At the party, Murray and Morgan with a second couple were playing the card game spades when a woman came dancing in and hand-fed Morgan a bite of her hotdog. Offended, Murray told the woman not to do it again. When she did it again, he rose from his seat and put her in a headlock.

Other guests separated the two, and Murray appeared to regain his composure, witnesses said. He got Morgan’s three daughters from a back room at the party and took them home, then went back to get Morgan so they could walk home together.

Morgan’s daughters testified their mother’s lip was bleeding and she was cursing Murray when they arrived back at the home. After calling her brother, Morgan told the girls to walk back to the party on Walker Street, and the daughters left before the stabbing.

Lambertus in his closing argument emphasized what the girls overheard their mother tell their uncle. They testified she told him that Murray had hit her in the mouth, and her brother had better come over right away. “You handle it or I’ll handle it,” Morgan was alleged to have said.

That showed Morgan was angry and intent on vengeance, Lambertus said, recounting past reports of Morgan’s assaulting other boyfriends, including one in which she was alleged to have beaten the man with a tire iron or crowbar. The assault charge in that 2002 case was dismissed in 2008.

Morgan could have chosen other options to resolve her dispute with Murray, the prosecutor said. For instance, she could have called 911 to report his hitting her, instead of calling her brother, but she chose not to.

“She had a plan in mind, and she wanted to execute that plan, and that’s when the crime occurred,” Lambertus told the jury.

Morgan, also known as Priscilla Harris, had faced charges of malice or intentional murder, felony murder for killing Murray while committing the felony of aggravated assault, aggravated assault and using a knife to commit a crime. The jury chose to convict her only of aggravated assault, finding her not guilty of all other charges.

Jackson in his closing argument reminded jurors that under Georgia’s so-called “stand your ground” law, anyone under attack is entitled to defend him- or herself and is not obligated to retreat.

In Morgan’s case, he said, “There was no malice, no intention to kill. There’s no evidence of that.”

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