Friday, November 16, 2007
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Brutal Orange County Sex Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence for a man who sexually assaulted a woman, then beat her to death, after meeting her at an Orange bar in 1994.
The Orange Superior Court jury that condemned Edward Patrick Morgan for the murder of Leanora Wong “properly considered all of the evidence” in reaching its death penalty verdict, Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court.
The body of Wong, 23, was found in a parking lot behind the Australian Beach Club. The club closed a few months later, the owners telling reporters that the notoriety of the case wrecked the business.
The killing occurred weeks before the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, and became an instant campaign issue. John Garamendi, then a candidate for governor and now the lieutenant governor, held a press conference in front of the club to emphasize his support for the death penalty, while his opponent, then-Treasurer Kathleen Brown, blamed then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, saying lax supervision of parolees was to blame.
Morgan had been released from prison on parole two months before the murder, after serving time for his third sex offense within seven years.
Wong and Morgan left the club in the early morning hours of May 20, 1994, under circumstances that made it unclear whether or not she went voluntarily. When the friend with whom she went to the bar that night could not find her outside, despite their earlier agreement that neither would leave without the other, she called police.
Police eventually found her body, and found images of Wong and Morgan taken by security cameras belonging to the company whose parking lot the murder was committed in. They eventually learned that Morgan was at a girlfriend’s house in Plumas County, where he was captured after running from sheriff’s deputies.
Before being returned to Orange County, he told the deputies that a friend had picked him up from the bar and that Wong was fine when he left. The detective who brought him back to Orange County noted that he had several wounds on his body that could have been inflicted during a violent struggle.
Morgan did not testify at trial, although his attorney admitted in closing argument that the defendant killed Wong. Jurors found him guilty of first degree murder with two felony-murder special circumstances, kidnapping and sexual penetration with a foreign object.
In the penalty phase, Morgan testified that he was sorry for what he had done, but that he could not remember details of the killing because he was drunk at the time. Other defense witnesses testified that Morgan had a psychiatric history dating back to age 10; took special education classes; had a reputation for violence, particularly after drinking; and had a learning disability.
Chin, writing for the high court, rejected all but one of Morgan’s claims of error. Orange Superior Court Judge Richard Weatherspoon, the justice agreed, should not have allowed the prosecutor to argue that even if Wong left the bar with Morgan voluntarily, his forcibly moving her from the outside of the bar to the spot where she was killed, a distance of less than 100 feet, constituted kidnapping because it increased the risk that she would be harmed.
That would be a sound argument today, Chin explained, but not in 1996, when the state of the law was such that the asportation element of kidnapping was defined solely by distance.
The error was harmless, however, the justice concluded, since jurors would have imposed the death sentence on the basis of the sexual penetration special circumstance alone.
“The question whether defendant forcibly moved his victim 37 feet or 245 feet to the location where he unlawfully penetrated her genital and anal areas, hit her head against the concrete, choked or strangled her, and ultimately murdered her, although critical to the kidnapping conviction at the time of defendant’s offenses...was of little or no significance to the penalty,” Chin wrote.
The case is People v. Morgan, 07 S.O.S. 6688.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company