Archive for Saturday, September 6, 2008

Morgan testifies in U.S. 59 fatalities trial

September 6, 2008

During cross-examination Friday, a Douglas County prosecutor accused a murder defendant of being angry and sleep-deprived when she struck and killed two highway construction workers on Sept. 11, 2007.

"I honestly didn't see any people," replied defendant Ramona Morgan, 49, of Washington state, who faces two reckless second-degree murder charges.

Before a packed courtroom, she insisted that she struck orange-and-gray construction barrels and said people were chasing her and trying to kill her while driving south on U.S. Highway 59 near Pleasant Grove that day.

During questioning, David Melton, a chief assistant Douglas County district attorney, said Morgan was tired and upset from driving across the country, only to be disappointed with land she intended to purchase near Eldridge, Mo.

Morgan's testimony, in her own defense, capped an eventful fourth day of the murder trial, where she is accused of running over construction workers Tyrone Korte, 30, of Seneca, and Rolland Griffith, 24, of El Dorado. Some of the day's key events were:

¢ Kansas Bureau of Investigation forensic scientist Karen Oyerly testified that DNA from Korte and Griffith was found in the damaged front end of Morgan's Chevrolet Silverado.

¢ Two Kansas Highway Patrol troopers testified that Morgan was driving more than 50 mph when, they said, she struck Korte and Griffith, throwing their bodies more than 115 feet.

¢ Deputy coroner Altaf Hossain testified that Korte and Griffith suffered fatal brain injuries. He also said the injuries were consistent with the damage he noted in Morgan's pickup truck.

¢ Jurors also viewed the damaged truck.

Taking the stand

During testimony, Morgan said that on Sept. 10 she had driven to central Missouri to buy land and a mobile home, but she was not satisfied with the condition. She then said as she drove across Missouri to try to return to Washington, a group of vehicles kept harassing her on the road, and she said a man shot at her.

Morgan also said she felt police in Missouri were not trying to help her.

During a brief stop at a hotel in Gardner during the early morning hours of Sept. 11, she said a man was looking at her truck, which again frightened her. She was carrying cash to make the real estate transaction.

Morgan said hours later she was driving on a two-lane paved road when a woman with a stop sign started striking her truck. She also saw a vehicle coming from behind her, which startled her.

Construction worker Amanda Hopper has testified that she struck the truck with her stop sign because the driver was disobeying her orders in the construction zone near North 900 Road and U.S 59. But Morgan said she felt threatened.

"I was trying to get out of there. I thought they were connected to ones that were trying to kill me in Missouri, and their actions led me to believe that they were trying to kill me," she said.

During the incident, Morgan also said a man "poured gasoline" on her, and she said people were throwing things at her truck, causing glass and the windshield to break.

"Did you remember striking anybody?" asked Morgan's defense attorney Billy Rork.

"No," Morgan said.

Morgan and her daughter, Sabrina, 27, who was a passenger in the truck during the incident, were later arrested on U.S. Highway 56 in Osage County when stop sticks punctured the tires.

Earlier Friday, KHP Technical Trooper Kristian J. Keberlein explained to jurors the process of examining the 2002 Chevy Silverado's airbag control module, which is similar to the black box investigators examine following a plane crash.

Trooper Kip Ballinger said taking into account the size of the tires on Morgan's truck, the module showed that 5 seconds before impact Morgan was traveling 40 mph. In those 5 seconds, Ballinger said Morgan accelerated to at least 51 mph. Keberlein testified that the information they retrieved from the truck also showed Morgan never touched the brakes and that she was accelerating at the time of impact.

Defense continues

Rork, who has tried about 40 murder trials as a defense attorney, said this case was unusual because drugs or alcohol are not alleged to be a factor. Prosecutors also don't allege Morgan's actions were intentional but reckless. But he said the fact that it's a traffic-related homicide trial doesn't make it different from a shooting or stabbing case.

"Any death is hard to defend because you just have the fact that there's a death," Rork said.

The challenge for the defense is to try to persuade jurors to consider the facts instead of finding sympathy with someone, he said.

Family members of Griffith and Korte have sat through tough moments of testimony, including autopsy photos on Friday and ones from the scene on Wednesday.

Griffith's family, including his wife, Melissa M. Griffith, and his father, Mark Griffith, visited a roadside memorial for the two men late Friday afternoon. Mark Griffith used a marker to trace his son's name to make it more visible.

Rork will continue presenting evidence Monday morning, and he is expected to call Sabrina Morgan to the stand to play a 911 call she made to Douglas County dispatchers.

Rork expects closing arguments to be sometime Monday.


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