In Memory Of Eric Morse Part I

Girl on a swing in front of the Darrow Homes

On October 13, 1994, two boys, ages 10 and 11, dropped Eric Morse, age 5, from the window of a vacant apartment on the 14th floor of 3833 S. Langley, a CHA high-rise at the Darrow Homes. Tried as juveniles, the boys were found delinquent in the killing of Morse and given the maximum sentence of five years. The building where the crime occurred, shown on the left in the photograph above, has been demolished. The question of CHA liability in the child’s death, however, remains open. The Morse family brought a civil suit against the CHA and two private companies—Diversified Realty Group, Inc. and Digby’s Detective and Security Service—arguing that they did not effectively screen visitors to the building and that they did not adequately secure the vacant apartment where the crime was committed. After deliberating for five days, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. On June 14th the judge declared a mistrial. On June 15th one of the defendants, Digby’s, agreed to pay the Morse family $800,000 to settle its claim. CHA and Diversified Realty face the prospect of a new trial.

We do not presume to express a view from afar on the legal merits in the Morse case. We did not hear all the evidence that was presented to the jury; nor are we familiar with the intricacies of relevant law. We do know that today, at this moment, the safety of other children—and adults—living in CHA buildings is threatened by conditions similar to those at issue in the Morse case. In the developments we know best—Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes—we see such conditions every day. Presumably, similar conditions exist in other CHA buildings elsewhere in the city, but we will limit our report to what we have directly observed.

Security.One of the issues in the Morse case was whether the defendants were negligent in that they did not provide adequate screening of visitors to the building and hence failed to prevent the boys who killed Eric Morse from gaining access. (Attorneys for Digby’s argued that the CHA did not require them to screen children under 13 years old.) Today at Stateway and Robert Taylor there is no screening of those entering the buildings—apart from that provided by the lookouts “doing security” for the drug dealers who operate in most of the lobbies.

Unsecured vacant apartments. The problem of inadequately secured vacant units in CHA buildings is chronic and has become more pronounced as developments have been depopulated. The CHA has made various efforts to address these conditions. Yet the problem persists. “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part II” will offer some practical strategies for dealing more effectively with this problem.

Robert Taylor Robert Taylor4950 South State, #1208, Robert Taylor Homes, June 6, 2001 – A resident on this floor told us that the unit had been vacant and unsecured for about two months.
More unsecure units at Robert Taylor4525 South State, #1303, Robert Taylor Homes, June 6, 2001 – We observed from the street that this unit was unsecured.

Unrestricted access to the roof. Stateway Gardens is made up of seven double-buildings (i.e., single structures composed of two tiers of apartments). Five are seventeen-stories; two are ten-stories. In recent months we have repeatedly observed that the doors to the roof in various Stateway buildings were open. When we have reported this to the management company, we have been told that the doors are left open during the day to facilitate elevator repairs. Francine Washington, president of the Stateway resident council, raised concerns about this policy with the owner of the management company on June 8th. On June 11th he reported back that “the problem has been corrected,” and that procedures have been implemented to “make sure that all doors to the roofs are secured at the end of the day.” He added: “The elevator maintenance personnel have access keys to the roof. There is no need for the doors to be left open to accommodate their work responsibilities.”

An open door on the roof at StatewayA child fleeing the roof3547-49 South Federal, Roof, Stateway Gardens, June 4, 2001 – The figure at the right in the picture is one of several children who were playing on the unfenced roof of this 17-story building on June 4th. When they saw us approaching, they ran away.
Staring into the sky from a Stateway roof

On the afternoon of Friday, June 15th, Lloyd Haywood, Andre Williams, and Kenya Richmond of the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC), a resident organization at Stateway, checked all the buildings and found that ten doors to the roof were open.

On the evening of Saturday, June 16th, residents of 3542-44 South State had to run for cover, because children were throwing rocks from the roof of the building. (The roofs are covered with a surface layer of small rocks roughly the size of golf balls.) “It was like it was raining rocks,” reported one resident.

I am writing this on the afternoon of Sunday, June 17th. I have just finished walking all of the buildings at Stateway. I found the doors to the roof open at the following addresses:

  • 3542 S. State Street
  • 3544 S. State Street
  • 3616 S. State Street
  • 3618 S. State Street
  • 3517 S. Federal Street
  • 3519 S. Federal Street
  • 3547 S. Federal Street
  • 3549 S. Federal Street
  • 3737 S. Federal Street
  • 3833 S. Federal Street
  • 3835 S. Federal Street

It’s a lovely summer afternoon. The Stateway high-rises are alive with the sounds of children playing.