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Son's life sentence is mother's, too

Vel Thompson recalls every detail of that June day: the phone call, jumping into the blue Nissan 300ZX she'd bought her 19-year-old son, finding him facedown, hands shackled behind his back, two police officers standing guard.

Three trials would follow and, in the end, a life sentence — for mother and for son.

Thompson's son, Michael Morgan, 34, is in a Palm Beach County correctional facility serving life for attempted murder, armed burglary and sexual battery.

Thompson, 50, who lives in a comfortable home in St. Petersburg's Lakewood Estates, is on an unceasing quest for his release.

In the real world, Thompson may have exhausted every legal avenue. In her mind, the fight continues. It's a struggle that consumes her.

"I have worked tirelessly. There isn't a day that I'm not making a phone call, writing a letter, talking to someone or on the Internet. I actually went back to school to become a paralegal, just so I can read the statutes so I can help my son,'' she said.

"I won't give up. I'm not going to give up on him.''

World travelers

Thompson was 16 when she married. Her only son, Michael Leland Morgan Jr., was born shortly after. The marriage lasted only two years, but she managed to provide a comfortable, even privileged life for both of them.

When she landed a job as an event planner for Eastern Airlines, she and her son traveled the world. They were best buddies.

"My younger life with Michael was a gift,'' she said.

They'd fly to Atlanta for sticky buns in the morning and be back in St. Petersburg for lunch. They made an annual pilgrimage to Harrods in London to shop. There were excursions to the Poconos, photos from the top of the Eiffel Tower, a voyage through the Panama Canal and strolls through Tokyo streets — "just the things that a normal black kid wouldn't get to do."

Thompson remarried when Michael was 14. Her new husband was Dr. Robert J. "Bob" Swain Jr., the city's first black oral surgeon. He was 40 years her senior.

She and her son continued to travel, but he was growing up.

"Michael was starting to realize there were other things out there,'' she said.

"He couldn't wait to be back to be with his friends. I slowly began to see things change with my son. ... He wanted to hang out with the kids that did bad things.''

He also started questioning the rarefied environment his mother created for him. "We used china,'' she said. "We used stemware.''

Michael's response wasn't what she hoped for.

"Why are you trying to live like white people?'' he asked.

No angel

His first arrest was at age 15. He shot someone in a city park. He was sent to a youth boot camp and when he was released, Thompson thought he had learned his lesson.

The crimes got more serious. In 1992 he was arrested on an armed robbery charge. The following year came the day that changed their lives forever. Michael was 19.

He and another man were accused of breaking into a woman's home and holding a handgun against her as each performed a sexual act on her. The 30-year-old woman tried to escape. He was accused of shooting her. The sentence was life.

His mother was devastated. "I even thought of suicide,'' she said.

"By that time, my husband had died and then I lost my father and Michael was sentenced and I'm looking in the face of my 10-year-old daughter and basically trying to figure out in what direction do I go.''

She signed up for paralegal classes and quickly completed the course. "I was on a mission,'' she said.

Police later arrested Gerald Wright, 19, as her son's accomplice. Thompson, who admits that her son was no angel, insists that he is a victim of mistaken identity. One of her son's lawyers took a statement from Wright saying that her son did not commit the crime. Wright named another man as his accomplice, but later recanted.

The person Wright named was Sherredelle R. Jones, 31, who is serving time for another crime. Thompson says her son and Jones look a lot alike and that the victim told investigators that one of the men who attacked her was clean shaven and had a gold tooth.

"Sherredelle Jones had a gold tooth. My son never had a gold tooth in his mouth,'' she said, adding that her son's skin problems didn't allow him to shave.

"Because the victim had ID'd my son, they stuck with it,'' she said.

Prosecutor's side

Richard A. Ripplinger, who prosecuted the case, isn't buying Morgan's innocence.

"This has come up so many times. I prosecuted him on another case where he robbed three women and took their jewelry,'' he said, adding that Morgan also had a record as a juvenile, including two batteries.

"It's just not like some normal law-abiding citizen that was picked up randomly,'' he said.

The naming of Sherredelle Jones as a suspect "came up after the fact,'' and the State Attorney's Office pursued the tip, Ripplinger said.

"Our investigators and a lawyer went separately in 2000 and saw him in jail'' and didn't see any resemblance between the two men, he said.

"In 2000, this guy Wright was saying, yes, it was Sherredelle Jones. A few weeks later, he wanted it back, '' Ripplinger said.

The victim was certain that Morgan was one of her attackers, Ripplinger said.

"She relived it in court. She knew what he looked like. Her family actually captured him and she has never wavered,'' he said.

"It was one of the most compelling things of a rape victim to survive. She thought she was going to die. She finally just jumped through the window and ran down the street naked and bloody.''

Ripplinger said he understands Thompson's tenacity.

"A mother's hope springs eternal. I've talked to her myself. She's called me. She's been nothing but persistent about it. But so have I.''

Surreal situation

Velma Itelia Thompson was born in St. Petersburg to the late Copperknee and Henrietta "Elina'' Thompson. Her father played baseball in the old Negro Leagues. Her parents sent her to private schools.

In 1980, while training to become an air traffic controller, she landed her "dream job'' with Eastern Airlines. In 1998, the late Bob Gilder, a Tampa Bay civil rights activist, asked her to volunteer with St. Petersburg's Neighborhood Team, or N-Team.

Today she is a supervisor with the program, which helps low-income and elderly homeowners bring their properties up to code. Inmates on work release help with the repairs. Thompson works closely with the inmates and has given them motivational talks.

"I tell them, do you really know what you're putting your family through? Your family is serving time, too,'' she said.

She couldn't have imagined the life she has now.

"I thought it (crime) wouldn't touch my life. I thought it wouldn't touch Michael's life and as long as it didn't touch my life, I didn't care,'' she said.

Today her life is largely confined to St. Petersburg, except for visits to her son. With her daughter, Jessica Swain, 21, at Florida A&M University, her sole companions typically are her 150-pound Rottweiler and 5-pound Brussels Griffin.

Thompson has spent "a little over $50,000'' fighting for her son's release. She has also gotten help from lawyers who have taken the case pro bono or for a nominal fee. One was well-known Miami lawyer Ellis Rubin, who has since died. His partner, Robert I. Barrar, has promised to testify on her son's behalf if his case goes before the clemency board.

For now, the blue Nissan 300ZX she bought for her son in 1993 to encourage him to turn his life around sits in her driveway.

"I'm keeping it for him,'' she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283. Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Son's life sentence is mother's, too 03/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 1, 2008 5:02am]

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