A suspended Baltimore police officer avoided risking the death penalty by pleading guilty yesterday in Carroll County Circuit Court to two murder charges -- for the repeated close-range shootings of a woman pregnant with his child and her 5-year-old daughter in Harford County.
Michael Edward Thompson, who turns 28 on Sunday, will receive two consecutive life sentences next month for the first-degree murder charges under a plea bargain accepted by Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger.
The prosecutor, Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, gave a long and graphic presentation of the evidence to support the guilty pleas, with slides of the bloody crime scene in the 2800 block of Conowingo Road (U.S. 1) in rural Street, about nine miles north of Bel Air. A 12-gauge shotgun and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle used in the killings April 13, 1998, were displayed.
The shotgun was used first that afternoon to blast into the bathroom where Vicky Lee Austin was bathing her kindergartner, Jessica Elaine Morgan, said Cassilly, showing a slide of the demolished doorknob.
As the mother put the child on her right hip and fled for the front door, Thompson got the rifle and fired a shot that pierced her and the girl, Cassilly said.
A deputy demonstrated how Thompson then stood over them and fired from about 18 inches, including a shot between the girl's eyes and one below her chin, he said. The autopsy indicated 30 entrance wounds.
Photographs and a drawn layout of the house detailed where 26 shell casings were found and blood and tissue as far as the ceiling. Bollinger stopped the display of two close-up photographs of the victims as unnecessarily graphic for a statement of facts to support a plea.
Thompson's wife, parents and in-laws sat grimly behind him, while across the courtroom aisle, an uncle and other relatives of the victims fought sobs.
Jessica's father, Jim Morgan of Frederick, said afterward that he had to look away and think of other things to get though the proceedings.
"I had no idea so much would be brought up. I don't want that memory," he said, shaking.
"You think this will get better, that there will be a day you don't wake up in the middle of the night and think about it. Now, a year and a half later, you realize it doesn't get a whole lot better, and the feelings of loss just never go away."
He said he was satisfied with the plea "as long as this guy never walks the street to do this to somebody else."
Jessica was proud of starting school at Hickory Elementary -- and fond of the man she called "Officer Michael," Morgan said, showing his daughter's school picture.
Morgan said he had lived with Austin and his daughter until Jessica was about 2 years old, took her on weekends and had reached a friendly relationship with Austin, whom he called a protective mother.
"She would not leave Jessica in that bathroom when those shots were being fired," Morgan said.
He denounced media coverage that emphasized Austin's job as a dancer on Baltimore's Block, as if to say, " 'She got what she deserved,' much like a rape victim. She was eight months' pregnant. Do you really think she was dancing then?"
In outlining his case, Cassilly said Austin was dancing on The Block when she met Thompson in 1997 and became pregnant as a result of their relationship. Austin began to call his home in the first block of Rader Court in Parkville, hanging up when his wife answered.
The calls led Sherry A. Thompson to demand that she and her husband file a complaint of telephone misuse at the Baltimore County Police Department's White Marsh Precinct, Cassilly said. There, an officer called the number provided by their caller-identification box and spoke to Austin -- who said she didn't want to break up Thompson's marriage but wanted him to take care of the baby and take her to a doctor's appointment.
The Baltimore County officer took Thompson aside to verify what Austin had said, warned him that he could get into trouble for filing a false report and suggested Thompson tell his wife, Cassilly said. Thompson replied that he would "take care of it in his own way."
Thompson went home and loaded the guns into his Chevrolet Blazer and drove the 40 minutes to Austin's home, Cassilly said.
Afterward, Thompson called his home about 1: 30 p.m. and was arrested soon after his return home, the prosecutor said. His wife had called his mother to say he was going to kill himself, and Thompson said, "I've done a terrible thing. I've killed her."
Defense attorney Henry L. Belsky did not contest the prosecutor's outline of the evidence, noting only that Thompson was facing the death penalty. The officer, who had patrolled the Eastern District on the midnight shift after joining the force in April 1994, was suspended without pay and has been held in isolation at the Harford County Detention Center since his arrest.
Thompson looked down at the defense table and only answered quietly, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" and "Guilty, your honor" to enter his plea, but apparently broke down after leaving the courtroom, the defense lawyer said.
After Cassilly filed notice of his intention to seek the death penalty -- in this case because more than one person was killed -- the case was moved twice: first by the defense from Harford County, then at the prosecutor's request from Baltimore County, where the Thompsons and their families live and work.
At an afternoon news conference in Bel Air, Cassilly said, "We felt that it was a strong likelihood that if we tried this case, we would have ended up with this sentence, or maybe something less," plus years of appeals.
He said the sentence "is like the death penalty. It's just going to take the rest of his life to execute him."
Sun staff writer Lisa Respers contributed to this article.