One October, two strangers—one 14, one 15—were walking opposite directions at school between fourth and fifth periods, and they bumped into each other.
“Instead of saying, ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry’ … or just keeping their mouths shut or going on about their business, words were exchanged, then heated words were exchanged, and insults were exchanged, and the two boys decided they would take their differences out on the school grounds,” J. Tom Morgan said.
The two went outside and their classmates circled around them, eager to see a fight.
The 15-year-old started to walk away, but his peers called him a “coward” and a “sissy,” Morgan said. “It’s better to be a coward for a minute then dead for a lifetime.”
The 14-year-old pulled out a penknife and stabbed the 15-year-old in his heart, killing him. Just prior to the incident, Georgia had passed its “Seven Deadly Sins” law, saying anyone 13 and up could be tried as an adult for murder and six other extreme crimes.
Morgan, a former district attorney for DeKalb County and a current trial lawyer, prosecuted the 14-year-old.
“It was the first time in Georgia history that a teenager’s been tried and convicted and been sentenced to life in prison under the Seven Deadly Sin law," he said.
Morgan told this story and others to roughly 150 students and parents Tuesday night at Lithia Springs High School. The author of Ignorance Is No Defense: A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law, he gave the book for free to attendees and autographed copies.
The overlying message of his speech: love them, hate them, or don’t care either way, the laws are there, so beware. One point he continually mentioned was that as of your 17th birthday, you’re tried as an adult in the Peach State regardless of the charge.
“There are only four states in the country that treat our teenagers as adults when they’re 17, and Georgia’s one of those four states,” said Morgan, who has spoken to many thousands of teenagers, was on the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, and chaired Georgia’s Child Abuse Prevention Panel.
“I testified before the Georgia legislature last year about raising that age to 18 to fit with the rest of the country, and I’ll never forget what the legislator said: ‘Oh Mr. Morgan, we can’t do that because we don’t want our constituents in Georgia to think we’re soft on crime.”
Morgan said he represented two girls—one 16, one 17—who together shoplifted less than $100 worth of CDs and DVDs from Target. Because one was lawfully an adult at the time, the crime was on her permanent record, while the 16-year-old didn’t have it on hers.
“You’re criminal history starts on your 17th birthday and stays with you until the day you die,” he said. “Don’t screw it up.”
Three of his main topics were alcohol, drugs and sex as they apply to young people.
Drinking, he said, used to be legally permitted at 18—until the federal government threatened to take away funding for highways and bridges unless states raised it to 21.
“That’s how the United States of America has ended up with the highest alcohol consumption age of any country on the planet,” he said.
Morgan mentioned the 100 college presidents who signed a proclamation addressed to Congress about lowering the drinking age. He said he was personally for lowering it to 19 so alcohol stays away from 18-year-olds in high school.
“I believe if you’re old enough to go to college, go to war, buy a house, have a family, buy a car, get a mortgage, you’re old enough to buy a beer without going to jail,” he said. “But it is what it is. I tell my students: ‘If you disagree with a law, change it, don’t break it.’”
Exceptions include wine during church and parents providing alcohol for just their own children in their home at any age, Morgan said.
Changing the drinking age to 21 did not curb alcohol use for those 18 to 20, he said, explaining how he put in an open records request for those on active probation for drinking at his alma mater, the University of Georgia.
“Not DUI, not marijuana—just active probation for possession of alcohol. Have a guess? 2,800.” The Lithia Springs crowd awed. “Changing the law did not change behavior.”
But DUIs are down among those 18 through 20, Morgan said. Those in that age group are getting smarter, he added, as they’re using more cabs and designated drivers.
Transitioning to drug use, Morgan spoke of a girl who gave a friend a prescription form of Tylenol for menstrual cramps at school.
“School resource officer sees the transaction,” he said. “The first girl is arrested for being a drug dealer on school grounds … being a drug dealer has nothing to do with money. If you give, if you share, if you sell a drug, you’re a drug dealer.”
The other girl was charged with a 15-year felony because it’s illegal to have a prescription drug without a valid prescription, Morgan said.
During his talks, Morgan passes out index cards and allows audience members to write questions for him. He said that during his first time doing this, one question was: “Mr. Morgan, did you ever blow dope?”
He said he could have used his right to remain silent or the statute of limitations.
“Or I could do what our Partnership for a Drug-Free America said let’s do … why don’t we be honest with our kids about our own drug use and maybe they will make wiser decisions instead of pretending like we were a great angel?”
He continued: “And I said, ‘Yes I may have been president of the student body of the University of Georgia, but I also smoked marijuana with my frat brothers.’ And I must have been in good company, because our last three presidents of the United States of America … have all admitted to smoking marijuana when they were in college. Does that make it right? No. But I think it should open up some discussions.”
Morgan drew laughter from the crowd by saying he’d rather run into someone who’s high at a bar instead of an intoxicated person.
“If there are two jerks in there that want to fight me—one of them who’s been drinking too much and one of them who’s been smoking dope—I can tell you which one this man wants to get in a fight with. The guy who’s been drinking too much thinks he’s bigger, stronger, meaner, tougher, uglier and sings better karaoke than anybody on the planet. The guy that’s been smoking dope wants to give me a brownie, a hug and take a nap.”
During his discussion on sex, Morgan mentioned a girl and a guy involved in a summer romance. The girl told the 17-year-old boy she was 16, but she was actually 15.
The girl’s mom found her daughter’s diary, which described the couple’s sexual encounters, Morgan said. The 17-year-old was later pulled out of his second period English class on charges of aggravated child molestation, statutory rape and sexual exploitation of children.
The charges stem from the girl being 15 instead of 16, the age for consensual sex in Georgia, Morgan said, even though the boy thought she was 16.
“Ignorance is no defense,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter what you’re told. It doesn’t matter what you believe. It doesn’t matter if he or she looks like they’re 21 years old.”
As for the boy: “Because he’s 17 years old, he’s a man, and he has to be put in with the adult population. So the 17-year-old boy, he’s put in with the murderers and the rapists and the child molesters and armed robbers. It takes his parents two weeks to get him a bond because his charges were such serious sex crimes.”
Morgan also spoke of a young girl he defended after three of her friends posted a naked picture of her on Facebook—a 10-year federal felony for child pornography.
“Our kids have got to understand technology is a wonderful thing,” he said, “but it really has certain dangers. And once you put something out there on the Internet, it is there forever.”
After spending 22 years as a prosecutor, Morgan said he began realizing certain things once he switched over to defense.
"The more I started talking with these kids, the more I realized two things that I was never aware of when I was a prosecutor: Our young people do not know our criminal laws. They do not appreciate the consequences, or they don’t even know the laws exist.
"Our society, me and you, if we’re going to hold these kids responsible as adults as young as the age of 13—and for all other counts at 17—isn’t it our moral responsibility to educate our children?”