St. Petersburg, FL – Vel Thompson is on a quest to let America know that Stand Your Ground is not the only thing stealing the lives of African-American teenagers in Florida. Her son, Michael Morgan, was taken from her over twenty years ago simply for being in the wrong place and having a dark skin color.
Michael was eighteen years old when he was riding his bicycle home from school that day. A man with a large dog started yelling at him and chasing him. Michael made it into a neighbor’s house and called his mom to come and help him. By the time Vel reached him less than ten minutes later, her nightmare was already unfolding.
“He was on the ground in handcuffs by the time I got there,” Vel said. “There was a policeman yelling at him and nobody would tell me what was happening. They just took him away.”
Over twenty years later, Michael Morgan is still sitting in a Florida prison for a crime that journalists, a County Commissioner and even one of the other men found guilty say adamantly and publicly that Michael did not commit.
The incident happened in 1993 in St. Petersburg, Florida during one of worst periods for racial tension between police officers and African-Americans in the city’s history. Riots would later erupt for two days in 1996 after Officer James Knight of the St. Petersburg Police Department shot and killed unarmed Tyron Lewis, who was eighteen years old, during a traffic stop. A grand jury cleared Officer Knight of all charges. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1996-11-14/news/9611140167_1_police-officer-grand-jury-riot
Vel relays when she feels like everything started to go wrong. When Michael was sixteen a man opened fire on he and a friend. Michael didn’t have a gun and ducked for cover. His friend attempted to return fire with his own gun and was hit. When the gun fell beside him, Michael picked it up and shot it toward the man. Instead of a self-defense argument being presented to a judge, Michael’s designated lawyer recommended that he just plead guilty to attempted murder and serve a few months in a juvenile detention center. Fearful that he might face larger penalties if he fought the charges in court, Michael agreed.
To this day Vel wonders if that legal advice was the first domino that caused things to topple. “Should we have fought the charges because he was innocent? I don’t know. I just thought that it would be better if he got everything behind him as quickly as possible. I was focusing on how lucky he was to be alive at all. I never thought it would come up again since he was only sixteen.”
Michael served his time and was released, but with a new skill set and a new set of bad influences. About a year later he was involved in an attempted robbery. According to Vel, that arrest was the shock Michael needed to start putting his life back together. He re-dedicated himself to school and started making better choices. Soon, however, his fate would no longer be in his own hands.
The day that Michael was riding his bike home from school, police were on the lookout for a black male who was allegedly involved in an assault on a woman named Felicia Fuller, which happened twelve days earlier. Ms. Fuller was shot in the buttocks once during what many described as a “drug deal gone bad”. Cocaine was found at the scene and Ms. Fuller stated that there were two men, both African-American, that assaulted her – one with a gold tooth and a second, clean-shaven man.
A quick run-down of facts that exonerate Michael:
- Michael has no gold tooth and had a full mustache at the time of his arrest.
- Michael has an alibi. He was at a school dance with friends during the alleged incident. After the dance he went to his girlfriend’s home and called his mom to let her know that he arrived. Multiple witnesses could corroborate Michael’s story.
- No DNA evidence, forensics, ballistics tests or witnesses place Michael anywhere near the scene of the crime at any time before or after the incident.
For those still skeptical, there’s what should have been Michael Morgan’s saving grace. Both the other man who was convicted for the assault, Gerald Wright, and the driver that night, Marva Davis, have sworn multiple times that the other suspect was absolutely not Michael. In fact, Mr. Wright went as far as to write a letter from prison, pleading for Michael’s release and stating that he didn’t even know Michael before this ordeal occurred.
Vel recalls the days when it was all too common for African-Americans to be pulled over or stopped and frisked in St. Petersburg for being guilty of nothing more than a “DWB”, or “Driving While Black”. In Michael’s case, he was a teenager picked up and charged with a crime with no other evidence than the fact that he was “Biking While Black”.
Having learned his lesson when he was sixteen, Michael refused to take a plea deal for something he didn’t do for a second time. His case went to trial and the judge was recused after he made inappropriate comments to the jurors that he thought Michael was guilty. A second trial was thrown out after prosecutorial misconduct.
After three trials, Michael was sentenced to three life sentences.
Those familiar with sentencing guidelines may be wondering how a gunshot wound to the buttocks that did not leave the victim gravely injured led to a triple life sentence. Those familiar with crime in particular neighborhoods during the 90’s may also wonder why such an incident led to an intense manhunt in the first place. In fact, in a state that is now nationally notorious for not aggressively prosecuting crimes against African Americans, why did the determination to prosecute Michael extend through THREE separate trials?
Perhaps the picture becomes clearer when we learn that the father of the victim, Earnest Fuller, was an officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department at the time. Fuller later retired after twenty-four years of service shortly after hitting a maintenance man with his police cruiser. The accident left the fifty-eight year old man in a wheel chair and with a brain injury and left St. Petersburg with a judgment against the city totaling one million dollars.
Vel Thompson remains dedicated to getting Michael out of prison over two decades after he was taken from her. She is currently working with volunteers in Pinellas County to get signatures on a petition requesting that Governor Rick Scott grant Michael clemency. While it is possible for the governor to use his power to grant her wish, the request is not a simple one. Florida law states that inmates typically have to serve at least half of their sentence before they are considered for clemency. Though he has been a model prisoner with no write-ups, having three life sentences puts Michael out of contention unless an exception is made.
That said, a big sign of public support could be exactly what Michael needs right now. The Stand Your Ground headlines have put Florida’s injustices against African-Americans back in the spotlight and it is a re-election year for Governor Scott. Pressure from voters could potentially nudge the Governor in Michael’s direction.
However, each day that passes makes Vel’s quest more difficult as evidence and witnesses start to evaporate. The writer for the St. Petersburg Times that called out publicly for Michael’s release has since passed away. < http://www.sptimes.com/News/013001/Floridian/A_claim_of_innocence_.shtml> The attorney that fought for Michael through his multiple trials has since died as well. The victim and the driver are both “in the wind” somewhere.
Vel has a backup plan, but it is going to take her a bit more time. She is currently working on her Bachelor’s degree and plans on attending law school, vowing to work to free her son herself if that’s what it takes.
To learn more about Michael Morgan, please visit www.MichaelMorganStory.com or contact Vel Thompson at 727-204-3139.
Shawna Vercher is a political pundit and the author of “A Fearless Voice: How a National Scandal Made Me an Advocate for Building a Better America”. Learn more about her advocacy work at www.AFearlessVoice.com or reach out to her on Twitter @ShawnaVercher.