Mom testifies at toddler death trial in Freehold


"You should have came with us," Arthur Morgan III wrote in the jailhouse letter to his ex-girlfriend, Imani Benton. "It would have been so different, I'm sure. That was the plan, to go as a family."

Morgan is on trial in the November 2011 death of the couple's daughter, Tierra Morgan-Glover. The toddler's body was found in a creek in a Jersey shore park about 20 miles from her Lakehurst home, one tiny black and purple sneaker sticking out of the water.

Tierra was still securely strapped into her pink car seat, which was weighed down with a heavy metal car tire jack, which prosecutors said was done to ensure it would sink.

Benton testified that she believes she, too, would be dead if she had gone along with Morgan on an outing that was supposed to be a father-daughter trip to a movie.

"If I would have went to the movie, we wouldn't have gone to the movie," she testified. "We all would have died."

Benton tearfully described to the jury how she learned of the girl's death, hours after her father angrily sped off with their daughter in his car.

She called police after Morgan was four hours overdue bringing Tierra home. Eight hours earlier, Benton said, Morgan had berated her, saying she wasn't a good mother and yelling that she was a whore.

Police came and took a report. Hours later, they returned, this time with an FBI agent who asked about a specific item of clothing Tierra was wearing, a pink Hello Kitty hat.

"I never told police about the hat," she testified. "When they asked, I knew something was wrong. I started hyperventilating, I had a panic attack and I would end up in the hospital."

Morgan, 29, of Eatontown, is charged with killing his daughter in what prosecutors claim was a premeditated, jealous rage because Benton would not get back together with him. Benton testified that days before the child's death, she broke up with Morgan for the last time, returning jewelry including an engagement ring to him.

Morgan's state of mind the day of his daughter's death will be a key part of the case. In his opening statement, defense attorney Ryan Moriarty indicated Morgan would not deny responsibility for Tierra's death. He told the jurors their task is to decide "what form of homicide applies to this defendant."

If convicted of "knowing and purposeful" murder, Morgan could get life in prison without parole. But if convicted of a lesser form of homicide, like reckless manslaughter, he could be freed in as little as five years.

Prosecutors said Morgan gave a statement to authorities in San Diego, where he was arrested, indicating "he could have done it that way" when asked if he had tossed the child into the creek.

The letter Morgan wrote from the San Diego County Jail also accuses his ex's family of depravity including incest and child rape, but that portion of the letter was read outside of the jury's presence.

"Incest, child rape, drinking. No, no, no. Not my baby. Not our baby," he wrote.

The letter did not specify which family members Morgan accused of abuse, nor did it say against whom the alleged abuse was carried out. Superior Court Judge Anthony Mellaci Jr. refused to let the jury hear it, noting that both sides in the case agreed before the trial not to raise those accusations.

In her testimony, Benton described ending up in a hospital, where an officer showed her a photo and asked if she could identify the person in it. The photo showed Tierra's lifeless body, her eyes closed, Benton said.

One of the items the child was wearing when she left with her father that morning was a necklace, Benton testified. It had a pendant that read, "Daddy's Little Girl."

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