Earlier this week, Eric Morelli pled guilty to 1st-degree Reckless Manslaughter for the death of 19-year-old Kristen Milano on June 12, 2014. Morelli admitted that after drinking at a party, he rode his moped to his friend’s apartment and attempted to wake him up by lighting fireworks and throwing them through his friend’s bedroom window. One of the fireworks exploded in the home and caused a fire that killed his friend’s sister.
The plea agreement provided that the Prosecutor will seek a sentence of 10 years in prison with additional 5 years on probation. Ms. Milano’s family did not approve of the plea bargain and called the deal a “slap in the face”.
I appeared on Fox and Friends on the Fox News network with Heather Hansen (@iamheatherhansen) and Elizabeth Hasselback (@ehasselback) to discuss whether the plea was fair and to give a former homicide prosecutor’s perspective on the case.
As I stated during the debate, this is a tragic incident and my heart goes out to the victim’s family. I understand their pain and have observed similar pain and dissatisfaction with the process as a former homicide prosecutor.
While the family may disagree with the plea agreement, the prosecutor is solely responsible for resolving cases with plea bargains. As a prosecutor, I always would have regular contact with the victim or victim’s family and always appreciate their input. However, in the end, it would be my office’s final decision. The best a prosecutor can do is always be transparent and explain the reasons for certain decisions.
When determining fair plea offers, the prosecutor must evaluate the case and its evidence to determine what can be proven in a court of law. This is critical! Prosecutors have to work within the confines of the law and statutes. Different crimes have different sentencing consequences which must be considered when determining a plea. Next, the prosecutor must identify if there are problems in the case or possible legal issues that can affect the prosecution of the case. Finally, the prosecutor should take into account the defendant, his criminal history, and any mitigating information or evidence brought forth by the criminal defense attorney.
In the Morelli case, the State originally charged the defendant with 1st-degree reckless manslaughter, 3rd-degree arson, and 3 counts of 1st-degree reckless endangerment. The aggregate of these charges equals 33 years in prison. In my opinion, because the charges are so factually similar, I believe the true exposure would have been 20 years, the maximum period of incarceration on the 1st degree reckless manslaughter. This is based on the legal doctrine of merger and concurrent sentencing.
This is a very important factor, in my opinion, that the plea agreement was fair. Since the possible sentence range for a class B Felony is 1 year to 20 years, after a trial, the judge could sentence Mr. Morelli less than the maximum 20 years after a balance of the aggravating and mitigating factors of the case. While I am not privy to the 19-year-old defendant’s criminal history, I would assume this is his first conviction or he has a minimal criminal history. This factor would work to his benefit if the judge had to sentence him within the range of 1 year to 20 years, even after trial.
Another important factor to my opinion that the plea agreement was fair is the final resolution of the case without a trial or appeal. There certainly are no guarantees at trial and securing convictions at trial for a prosecutor is not easy. The State has the ultimate burden of proof which is beyond a reasonable doubt. This is even more difficult in a very difficult reckless manslaughter case which will turn on complex legal definitions such as “under circumstances evincing an extreme indifference to human life”, “recklessly”, and “grave risk of death”. Additionally, a plea eliminates the need for tense questioning, emotional arguments, and gruesome photographs. During a trial, victims are often forced to relive tragedy and heartache day after day. Finally, the plea resolution eliminates the lengthy appeals and the risk of reversal and retrial.
Furthermore, the victim’s mother had the opportunity to speak at the time of the plea and the judge hearing the case could have rejected the terms of the plea agreement. Instead, the judge commented that deal was “fair and just”.
I, admittedly, do not have access to the police reports and the investigation. Therefore, I am somewhat limited by the news reports and other facts learned through the media. However, I do think, based on the information I do know, that the plea offer extended and accepted by the judge was fair as discussed with Elizabeth Hasselback and Heather Hansen.
Additionally, while the victim or the victim’s family can’t reject a prosecutor’s plea offer, they do have some rights which can be found in the State’s victim’s rights bill of rights. Both Connecticut and New Jersey which include:
• They be treated fairly and respectfully;
• The case be completed in a timely manner;
• They be protected from the accused;
• Be told of court dates;
• Attend trial and proceedings;
• Talk to the prosecutor about the case;
• Have a chance to agree or disagree with any plea agreement and to make a statement to the court, at sentencing, if the court accepts the plea;
• Speak at sentencing;
Finally, some may argue that the defendant should have been charged with or pled guilty other crimes such as murder, arson or felony murder related to the arson. I disagree with those arguments. The evidence clearly supports that Mr. Morelli was attempting to wake up his friend by throwing a firework into the room. As discussed in the debate, the defendant’s intent is critical here. The arson and murder charges would have required the purpose to burn down the structure or kill the victim. This would be very difficult to prove considering this was the defendant’s friend’s home and it was a very bad joke that led to tragedy.