Horseplay blamed for guard death at youth prison

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Lawyers for a teenager who pleaded guilty Monday to voluntary manslaughter in the death of a youth prison guard are portraying the case as an impromptu wrestling match between the two at a state-run center.

Hubert Morgan, 18, of Wakeman, pleaded guilty in a deal that allows him to avoid trial and be sentenced to anywhere from probation to 10 years in prison at a hearing Feb. 2. In exchange for the plea, murder and felonious assault charges were dropped.

Morgan was 17 when William Hesson, 39, of North Canton, died in April at the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility in Highland Hills, in suburban Cleveland.

Hesson died of a cardiac rhythm disturbance caused by a blow to the abdomen, and the death was ruled a homicide. Another teen testified that the guard was wrestling with Morgan and was hit in the abdomen after putting Morgan in a head lock.

But Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Patrick Thomas said the second teen’s testimony had changed and wasn’t reliable. Morgan was the only person who knew what happened in a small closet area of the lockup, Thomas said.

Defense attorney Regis McGann characterized the encounter as mutual horseplay akin to wrestling, but Thomas said there was no evidence that Hesson had offered to wrestle with Morgan after another teen rejected Hesson’s invitation.

“It is very possible that Hesson walked into that room not knowing that Hubert Morgan was following him in,” Thomas said.

Morgan told investigators that Hesson got him in a head lock and hit him in the abdomen to free himself. “There’s no real animosity or malice” in the encounter, McGann said.

The Ohio case comes amid increasing scrutiny of juvenile detention across the country.

A U.S. Justice Department probe found in August that workers at four state youth detention centers in New York had routinely used force, causing dozens of serious injuries, including broken bones and teeth.

In Ohio, the state is revamping programs and facilities as part of a consent decree that settled a lawsuit alleging inappropriate use of force by guards, among other problems.

There was no evidence of other “wrestling matches” between guards and teens at the Ohio center where the death occurred, Thomas said.

But McGann said there had been similar encounters between teens and other guards.

“Some of the kids who would have testified in this case would indicate that, ‘Yeah, the guards take kids back there a lot,'” McGann said.

A report in September said Morgan had been involved in 15 assaults, three cases of disruptive behavior and two sexual assault incidents between the time he entered the youth prison system Aug. 27, 2008, until Hesson’s death April 29.