Family greets convicted murderer freed after 24 years

May 12, 2011 1:36:10 PM PDT
After 24 years of incarceration, Ernest Morgan, who was freed from San Quentin State Prison this morning, planned to head to Mama's restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach with his family for an omelette.

He also intends to take in a Giants game and a 49ers game soon, but his top priority is spending with his loved ones and getting to know them again.

In September 1987, Morgan shot and killed his 14-year-old stepsister Chari McCline when she came home as he was burglarizing his stepfather's apartment in Oakland. He was 18 at the time.

He was later convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He ended up spending more than two decades behind bars, the last 13 years at San Quentin.

This morning, around 8 a.m., he was driven through San Quentin's east gate and was dropped off just outside prison grounds where he was met with tears and hugs by his mother, biological father and two brothers.

As he stepped out of the prison van he looked at his mother, Hilda McCline, with a twinkle in his eye.

"I love you," he said, as she embraced him.

After greeting his family, he turned to a handful of reporters to answer questions. He became emotional when asked about Chari.

"She was a beautiful girl," Morgan said. "She didn't have a chance to grow up and be the person that she could have been. Because of me."

Chari's father, Richard McCline, has forgiven Morgan, largely because he worked to reform himself in prison.

"Maybe I'm not normal, but if you carry anger around for everything it destroys you more than it does the other person," McCline said in a phone interview Wednesday from Louisiana, where he lives with Morgan's mother.

Morgan's biological father, Ernest Morgan Sr., called McCline a "saint" and said he was devoted to helping Morgan even right after the murder, with the condition that Morgan try to better himself.

"He told me right then and there what he expected out of Ernest," Morgan Sr. said.

Behind bars, Morgan earned an education and participated in a slew of programs, including San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences and Studies, or SQUIRES, which allows young offenders to visit the prison to learn about life behind bars.

In the SQUIRES program, Morgan met a young man who reminded him of himself, which he said was a turning point for him.

Another turning point occurred after about 12 years of incarceration when his family members distanced themselves from him.

"It gave me an opportunity to work on myself," Morgan said.

Now, as a free man, he will continue to help others, he said. He has several job offers as a result of his activities in prison, including one that involves working with at-risk youth.

He will live in a transitional housing facility in San Francisco. He could have chosen to go home and live with family members, but he said he thinks it's wiser for him to have more structure at first.

Morgan will have to adjust to a different world than he knew when he was incarcerated nearly a quarter-century ago and will have to make new friends.

"I have a whole bunch of friends I just left," he said this morning, standing in the sun outside prison gates. "It's hard leaving."

He planned to stop at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to pray before heading to Mama's restaurant, which he found out about watching KQED's "Check Please! Bay Area." He said the image of their omelettes stuck in his mind.

Morgan left San Quentin with just a handful of possessions, including a photo album and a Bible.

His 28-year-old brother Louis Morgan, who was in preschool when Morgan was incarcerated, couldn't stop grinning when asked how he felt this morning. "It's indescribable," he said.

Morgan has gone before the state Board of Parole Hearings numerous times and has been found suitable for release twice. The first time, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the decision, using the power granted to him by a 1988 voter-approved constitutional amendment that allows governors to review parole board decisions in murder cases.

The governor said Morgan could present a safety risk to the public if freed.

Schwarzenegger reversed about 70 percent of parole board recommendations for release in such cases during his tenure, and his predecessor Gray Davis blocked murderers' release in nearly all cases.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who appears to be taking a more hands-off approach, declined to review Morgan's case, thereby allowing the parole board recommendation to stand.

San Quentin spokesman Lt. Sam Robinson was the one to break the news to Morgan last week that he would soon be a free man. At first, he said, it appeared Morgan would pass out from shock.

Then there were smiles and hugs, but Robinson said Morgan quickly pulled himself together and became somber, saying, "My sister isn't here and I am."

While waiting for her son outside prison gates this morning, Hilda McCline appeared calm but said that inside she was "a mess," although she managed to get a good night's sleep.

Morgan was supposed to be freed by Wednesday, his 42nd birthday, but his release was delayed by bureaucratic obstacles, his family and his lawyer Johanna Hoffmann said.

McCline said she'll spend two days with her son then head back to Louisiana. She plans to return to the Bay Area in a few weeks.

She said Morgan has a lot of adjusting to do.

"I think he probably needs to go slow," she said. "Real slow."

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