The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis 

Judge sentences Morgan to year in jail

Jail time mandated for motorcyclists death


Don Morgan was sentenced to serve two years in jail, with one year suspended, and an additional four years probation for his role in the 2009 death of motorcyclist Daniel Buttram.

The sentence was handed down in Valdez Court August 4, after emotional testimony given by the victim’s widow, Tanya Buttram, who tearfully told the court the hardships she and her two young children have endured after the untimely death of her husband, who was 29 years old at the time of the accident.

Morgan was originally indicted by a grand jury and charged with negligent homicide after police say he ran head-on into Buttram while he was illegally trying to pass a slow-moving construction crane near Milepost 1on the Richardson Highway July 7, 2009. In the plea bargain agreement, Morgan pleaded guilty to a third degree felony assault charge which carries a maximum sentence of two years.

Morgan made a plea bargain with state prosecutor Kerry Corliss the day before his trial for negligent homicide was slated to begin last June.

During the hearing, Morgan’s attorney, Elizabeth Valera, asked the Judge Eric Smith to suspend the two year jail sentence and to waive drug and alcohol testing as a probationary requirement.

“Mr. Morgan has taken responsibility since day one,” Valera told the court, “He was candid about everything.”

Earlier in the hearing, Jamie Major of the Valdez Police Dept. testified that Morgan retrieved marijuana from his truck at the time of the accident, and later admitted he was returning from purchasing it when the head-on collision occurred.

“Though Ms. Corliss is reluctant to call this an accident, it is an accident,” Valera said during the hearing, She noted the defendant was properly insured at the time of the fatal wreck and the actual amount of THC in Morgan’s blood was low. She also said it was unfair to brand and punish Morgan as a dangerous driver as she felt the prosecutor’s case was based largely on incidents that occurred after the fatality.

Morgan was arrested and charged with reckless driving in September of 2009 after a citizen’s complaint alleged that Morgan attempted to pass a truck on the Richardson Highway allegedly causing oncoming drivers, including a motorcyclist, to swerve in order to avoid collisions.

“This in not an effort to offend the community,” Valera said, nor an attempt to avoid responsibility for Buttram’s death. “He has done everything he had to do.”

Morgan made his statements to the court after Tanya Buttram’s tearful testimony.

“I know I was partly responsible for this accident,” Morgan said, “But I can’t say that it was all my fault.”

Earlier in the hearing, Valera had argued Morgan did not bear full responsibility for the fatality after it was determined that as Morgan attempted to swerve towards the shoulder of the highway to avoid hitting Buttram, the motorcyclist also swerved in the same direction before attempted to ditch the motorcycle.

“I’m sorry it happened,” he said “I’m sorry that man died.”

Morgan, who was not in police custody at the time of the hearing, stood up and sniffled back tears.

“She is not the only one traumatized by this, I’m hurt too,” he told the court, “It hurts so bad.”

He said he didn’t think he was a bad driver and complained that he often sees examples of poor driving while he rides his bicycle and said it was the job of police to enforce the law, not him. He also continued to blame the victim.

“I’d like to say I’m very sorry for this,” he said, “But as far as I’m concerned, it was not all my fault.”

After a 10 minute break, Smith returned to the court to render his decision.

“This obviously is a tragedy for everybody,” he said, and pointed out that as judge, he was constrained from commented on the plea agreement and the type of charges Morgan faced. He was also noted that two years prison was the maximum sentence allowed by law for the charge.

“He pleaded to recklessly injuring Mr. Buttram,” Smith said, but in reality, he killed him.

“He doesn’t appear to understand the depth of his error,” Smith said, “That’s a significant issue.”

When sentencing defendants, Smith noted it is a judge’s duty to meet certain criteria including rehabilitation, deterring others from similar acts, protecting society and reaffirming societal norms.

Mugshot courtesy of Valdez Police Department

Don Morgan

“I think society expects jail time” when somebody kills somebody else, Smith said.

In addition to the two years prison, with one year suspended, Morgan will also be subjected to strict drug and alcohol screening during his four-year probationary period, as Corliss argued for earlier in the hearing.

“I know its going to take a long time for everybody to heal,” he said, before ordering Morgan to turn himself into the Valdez jail Friday.

Valera declined to comment on the sentence.

“I was pleased with the judge’s decision,” Corliss said after the hearing.

A civil lawsuit against Morgan that alleges wrongful death was filed in Valdez Court by Buttram’s estate on July 7.


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