Meggie Morgan was given a gift the first time she came before a judge on a negligent homicide charge in the death of a woman well-known for her advocacy for animals in need.
The 31-year-old Stevensville woman wasn’t so fortunate the second time.
Missoula District Judge Leslie Halligan accepted the terms of a plea bargain agreement Friday that included a 20-year commitment with the Montana Department of Corrections, with 15 years suspended. Morgan will also be required to pay $1,500 in restitution to the driver of the car she hit in 2018.
Morgan’s lawyer said attempts to get a placement in Missoula’s pre-release or the Passages Program in Billings were unsuccessful, which means that Morgan will likely spend at least some time in the Montana Women’s Prison.
In September 2015, Morgan drove through a stop sign onto U.S. Highway 93 and collided with a vehicle driven by 64-year-old Judy Paul. Morgan’s three children were in the vehicle at the time of the wreck.
Paul was driving two Labrador puppies to her canine rescue home near Corvallis. Paul and one of the puppies died in the crash.
Morgan was found to be under the influence of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, at the time of the accident.
Morgan pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, three counts of criminal endangerment and misdemeanor cruelty to animals. Following an emotional hearing in 2016, former Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes opted not to accept the terms of a plea bargain agreement. Instead, he chose to give Morgan a second chance and imposed a deferred six-year sentence, which would have allowed her to keep a clean record if she followed the conditions set by the court that included no drugs or alcohol.
In June 2018, Morgan was charged with negligent vehicular assault and a misdemeanor count of operating a vehicle while under the influence of THC following a head-on collision on the Eastside Highway that left the other driver hanging upside down in her overturned Toyota Tundra.
Chief Deputy County Attorney Angela Wetzsteon filed a petition to revoke Morgan’s deferred sentence as a result of the new charges.
On Friday's sentencing hearing, Wetzsteon told Halligan the state had asked for Morgan to be committed to DOC or prison as part of a plea agreement in the first case, but Haynes opted to go a different route and gave her a deferred sentence.
“It was a huge opportunity for Ms. Morgan,” Wetzsteon said. “It was really a gift.”
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Wetzsteon said Morgan squandered that opportunity at the expense of other people.
“We don’t like to see people as criminals who look like Ms. Morgan,” Wetzsteon said. “We don’t like to acknowledge that people who have young families and otherwise contribute to society, who go to church … who assist people in the community can be criminals.”
“I think it’s appropriate to say, on behalf of the victims, this person is a criminal,” Wetzsteon said. “She made criminal decisions that hugely impacted the lives of other people. Ultimately, Ms. Morgan is a danger to this community, and she’s a danger to anyone traveling on the roads.”
“The number one thing we hear from citizens in our community is that they are afraid of being hit by a drunk driver,” Wetzsteon said. “Most people are not going to be in a bar fight. Most people are not going to be the victim of a domestic assault or partner abuse. Anybody can be a victim of someone driving around high as Ms. Morgan was.”
Morgan cried as Wetzsteon spoke.
When she had a chance to speak, Morgan told the judge that she would never drive again.
“I’m not a danger to my community,” Morgan said. “I would never hurt someone on purpose. I will never drive again. I have a very supportive family and community who will help me get to where I need to go and get my kids to where they need to go.”
Morgan said she lives with the mental pain that her actions caused a death and an injury.
“I live with it every day,” Morgan said. “That’s the first thing that I think of in the morning is the people that I’ve hurt. It’s something that will never go away … This is something that I will live with for the rest of my life.”
Morgan said she took THC before the second accident to dull that pain.
“When I ingested THC, it was for the mental pain,” she said. “I hurt so bad that I just wanted to escape. I understand. I’m not making excuses. That was the wrong choice … I have learned. It’s not something that will happen again. I know that’s just words right now, but I will show by my actions.”
Halligan urged Morgan to take advantage of the programs offered through either DOC or the women’s prison.
“I know in your heart you don’t wish to be a threat to folks by making poor decisions and by not addressing your mental health and physical conditions,” Halligan said. “You’ve engaged in conduct which has resulted in you being a danger to society and danger to your community. That doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It means you have issues you need to address and there are resources there, so you can address them so you can be productive and no longer be a danger to other people.”
Halligan said she reviewed the contributions that Paul provided the community. She said she could understand the burden that Morgan bears because Paul is no longer here because of her actions.
“She had many strong supporters who still struggle with her loss,” Halligan said. “By all accounts, she was a very valuable member of society. As you think about the difficulties, think about your continued contributions to the community so you can give back in way that she gave back.”
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