A South Carolina man, who has been in prison for seven years for a deadly Rock Hill fire that killed his baby brother, was denied parole Wednesday.
However, even with that denial, it appears under state law that Jacob Matthew Morgan could be released from prison as early as December. At that point he would have served about half of a 15-year sentence.
Morgan, now 24, was denied a chance at release Wednesday by the unanimous vote of a panel of the S.C. Parole Board after a video conference hearing, said Valerie Suber, associate deputy director of the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. The parole board had gathered in Columbia.
Morgan appeared in the parole hearing from MacDougall Correctional Institute in Berkeley County. It was his second parole hearing after he was denied in May 2021.
Joshua Hill, Morgan’s younger brother, was 14 months old when he died in the March 2015 mobile home fire in York County, just outside Rock Hill. Morgan was babysitting at the time. The incident captured national attention.
Morgan pleaded guilty in 2016 under what is called an Alford plea, a negotiated agreement with prosecutors where Morgan did not have to admit guilt but accepted there was evidence against him that would likely convict him. The agreement came after he had been indicted on charges of first-degree arson and murder and faced up to life in prison.
Morgan was convicted in 2016 on charges of third-degree arson, involuntary manslaughter and child neglect.
During the parole hearing
Morgan did not admit guilt Wednesday.
Parole Board chairman Henry Eldridge, of Tega Cay in York County, said Morgan was convicted of a serious charge and asked Morgan how he felt about it.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t regret my brother’s death,” Morgan replied to Eldridge via teleconference. “I would gladly change places with him.”
Eldridge then asked Morgan why he became involved in the deadly incident.
Morgan replied that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but did not elaborate.
Morgan acknowledged in the hearing after a statement from Eldridge that he has received mental health treatment while in prison.
Eldridge asked Morgan if he would work if released from prison to live with his mother.
“I can work if it’s necessary,” Morgan said. “I have to be responsible for my own life.”
The hearing ended with no more questions. Eldridge told Morgan the parole board would vote and Morgan would be advised of the vote results.
The vote was released shortly afterward.
Parole board hearings are public meetings. The Herald, a part of McClatchy company, obtained permission from South Carolina parole officials to watch Wednesday’s hearing.
There were no other speakers at the hearing. In 2021 Morgan’s mother spoke as an advocate for him to be released.
The 2016 guilty plea and sentence, later discussions about Morgan and the case, were covered by local media and other outlets such as CNN Headline News, the Daily Mail from the United Kingdom, and regional media in both Carolinas.
Morgan set fire intentionally, officials said
Police and prosecutors said in court in 2016 that Morgan set fire in at least two places in the mobile home, and did not call for help despite having a cellphone.
Prosecutors said in 2016 that Morgan had set a fire two weeks before the fatal incident.
Police and prosecutors said in court that Morgan lied to cover up the crime and knew that his brother would die in the fire.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said Wednesday, after Morgan was denied parole, that Morgan should serve his full sentence. There was no question the fatal fire was set intentionally and a child died, Brackett said.
“It is appropriate that Mr Morgan serve his full sentence in this case,” Brackett said.
Morgan’s lawyer from arrest through the 2016 guilty plea, 16th Circuit Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough, said Morgan deserves parole.
“It is extremely disappointing that Jacob Morgan was denied parole again today,” Barrowclough said in a statement to The Herald. “When he went to prison he was a gentle and soft-hearted young man who had endured a difficult childhood. A quick review of his incarceration on the SCDC website shows he’s had no disciplinaries. His crime, even from the State’s perspective, was one of recklessness, not evil intent. And I know the victim’s family, which is his family, want him home because they never wanted him incarcerated in the first place. To deny this young man parole is an indictment of the parole system.”
What happens now?
Morgan was sentenced to 15 years in prison for all three convictions, court records. The S.C. Department of Corrections Web site shows that Morgan is eligible for release from prison in December. His release date is Dec. 23.
Chrysti Shain, spokesperson for the corrections department, said South Carolina law allows inmates to reduce their sentences by earning work and educational credits.
In the 2021 parole hearing, Morgan said he earned a General Equivalency Diploma to graduate high school while in prison.