Crime & Courts

A hit-and-run driver took her life. Her loved ones confronted him in court.

Jessica Morrell, at left, was struck and killed in a SouthEnd crosswalk last March. On Thursday, the driver, who ran a red light, pleaded guilty to a felony hit-and-run charge.
Jessica Morrell, at left, was struck and killed in a SouthEnd crosswalk last March. On Thursday, the driver, who ran a red light, pleaded guilty to a felony hit-and-run charge. Facebook

The pedestrian signal said it was time for Jessica Morrell to begin crossing South Tryon Street. She did.

The red light told Jeffery LaForce to stop. He did not.

On March 4, the 31-year-old Charlotte woman was walking from the Gin Mill to a late Saturday night dinner in SouthEnd when she was struck and gravely injured by LaForce’s Dodge Avenger. A witness told police that LaForce ran a red light at South Tryon and Bland streets before colliding with Morrell in the crosswalk. He then barreled north into uptown. LaForce turned himself in to police the next morning.

Morrell, who friends say always waited for the light before crossing a street, who volunteered at the Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity, and who had already promised a pregnant friend that she would watch every Disney movie ever made as the baby grew up, died two months after she was struck.

On Wednesday, some of Morrell’s loved ones struck back.

Jessica Morrell had entered this crosswalk in SouthEnd last March when Jeffery LaForce ran a red light and struck her with his car. She died two days later. On Thursday, LaForce escaped jail time. Some of Morrell’s friends and family wanted to know why. Michael Gordon

Eight of the dead woman’s relatives and friends sat shoulder to shoulder in a Mecklenburg courtroom as LaForce’s case was called, and the 25-year-old man walked up the center aisle. Four members of the Morrell group later stood within a few feet of the defendant to tell him and those within earshot what Morrell’s life and death had meant.

Two of the loved ones spoke out against the plea agreement that the District Attorney’s Office had reached with LaForce, which eliminated his original involuntary manslaughter charge. LaForce, who had no previous criminal record, instead pleaded guilty to felonious hit and run, and misdemeanor death by vehicle.

He received a suspended sentence of 13 to 25 months, got credit for the 60 days he already had spent in jail, lost his license for at least a year and was placed under a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. He’ll spend 30 months on probation and must also undergo a drug and alcohol assessment.

After the details of the agreement were read alound, Morrell’s uncle, Martin Driscoll, said the punishment did not add up.

“Everybody knows Mr. LaForce was drinking and driving and that he went and hid out for the night until his alcohol level went down,” Driscoll told Superior Court Judge Bob Bell. “That’s irresponsible. That’s putting himself ahead of everybody else, something Jessica would never do.”

Prosecutors said they cannot say whether alcohol was a factor in Morrell’s death. When LaForce turned himself in the next morning, one officer said he smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath. Three officers said they did not. Too much time had passed for police to conduct a reliable blood test, prosecutors say.

During the sentencing, one of Morrell’s friends told LaForce she hoped that she could one day forgive him but that she and Morrell’s other loved ones will suffer far more than he.

Another told the judge, “How someone can walk away with a seemingly minimal punishment isn’t easy to understand.”

Prosecutors had little sentencing leeway in the case, said Bill Bunting, head of the district attorney’s homicide team. Given the evidence and LaForce’s lack of a criminal history, a conviction likely would have ended with probation, he said. That’s what LaForce received, but only after serving two months in jail. Bunting said. “I think this is an appropriate outcome.”

LaForce stood to the left of the speakers, shoulders slumped beneath his red shirt, staring down in the direction of the Bible that rested on the table before him. He said nothing while the others spoke. But his attorney, Robert DeCurtins, asked Morrell’s loved ones not to mistake his client’s silence for disinterest in what they had said.

Jeffery LaForce
Jeffery LaForce apologized to the loved ones of Jessica Morrell, whom he struck and killed during a hit and run last March in SouthEnd. Mecklenburg jail

“He listened to every word,” the lawyer said. “It’s not lost on him that he does have a future and he’s taken someone else’s away.”

After he turned himself in, LaForce spent his first two weeks in jail crying, the attorney said, “ashamed for his lack of accountability.”

When given the chance to speak, LaForce turned to those who had come to bear witness to the life he had taken, his flushed face visible to the courtroom for the first time.

“I’m so sorry for my actions and deeply sorry for your loss,” he said quietly, “and I hope you can forgive me.”

Eight faces, some wet with tears, some blank, stared back.

Staff Writer Jane Wester contributed to this story.

Hundreds of bicyclists rode from the north end of Hilton Head Island to the south end a little after 4 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2016, in honor of Dr. Jeff Garske, who was killed Aug. 18 in a hit-and-run crash. The bikers rode from Honey Horn Plantation ac