The confidential informant, an ex-con working with Durham police on a drug bust, couldn't find a dealer.
Jennifer Burrage, a 36-year-old from Bahama, was trying to make a controlled drug buy in exchange for leniency on a pending set of charges. On the sunny afternoon of July 6, 2012, a pair of undercover police officers sent her to the Duke Manor apartment complex in northwest Durham, where she knew some of the dealers. She carried a concealed handheld audio/video recorder to gather evidence of any transactions.
But after scouring the parking lot, Burrage found only one person, an old acquaintance, Milton Morgan, a 61-year-old who worked as a janitor for the Durham V.A.
During a brief visit inside his apartment, Milton showed her a small stash of drugs. He suggested they get high, and made sexual advances on her. Burrage, however, wasn't interested. She left the apartment and joined the police officers in their truck.
"He's not a dealer," Burrage explained. "He ain't have but like two little pieces there and a dime of weed."
"He didn't want to sell any of it?" said one officer.
"Well he asked me but ... I guess I was too nervous," she said. "He has a tendency to try to ... pressure me to do things that I'm not gonna do."
"Think you can go in there and buy it and leave?"
"I mean, yeah," she said.
Then she asked a question: "It don't matter if they're a dealer or not, as long as they sell me something, it don't matter?"
"Yeah, that's fine," said the officer.
The grainy video footage of the conversation between Burrage and the two officers played on a screen in front of Durham County jury on Tuesday. Morgan, who is charged with four crimes, including sale of drugs, possession with intent to sell, and maintaining a dwelling for drugs, sat at the defendant's table, having declined a plea deal.
- Courtroom sketches by V.C. Rogers
His case touches on the debate over the war on drugs, particularly the targeting of low-level users, and law enforcement's use of confidential informants.
Morgan admits to giving Burrage a small dose of crack. But he argues that he isn't the type of person law enforcement should be worried about, and he questions whether the police entrapped him.
"All over twenty dollars," said Morgan in an interview before the trial. All he wanted to do was to get high with Burrage and, perhaps, hook up, he said.
"I wanted to build her up to get in her pants," he said. "She's a fine young lady."
On the witness stand on Tuesday, Investigator Jonathan Craig, who worked the Morgan case as a narcotics specialist with DPD's Special Operations Division of the Major Crimes Unit, spoke to jurors about the importance of using confidential informants. Because informants are familiar with dealers, they are more effective than undercover officers in scoring drugs. The operation Burrage participated in was part of a Drug Market Initiative to improve the Duke Manor community, where there had been several police calls about drugs and violence two summers ago.
"It was an area that needed attention by the police," Craig testified.
Once police found willing informants, he said, "you can kinda hit the ground running."
Before Burrage's walk to the apartment complex, Craig and his partner searched her for any drugs and money, finding none. They gave her $20 to buy drugs from anyone; there were no specific targets. They watched her through their windshield when she arrived at Duke Manor, and listened to her conversations throughout the operation.
Between Craig's testimony the jury watched two videos, totaling about 45 minutes, that tells a large portion of the story.Editor’s note: We have included only the audio portion of the recording; the quality of the video, while poor, still showed the faces of the people inside the police car.
During Burrage's initial walk through the complex, she spoke through the microphone to the police officers, frustrated that she didn't recognize anybody in the parking lot.
"Nobody," she muttered. "I'm gonna knock on this person's door."
Morgan greeted her inside. "What's up?" he said enthusiastically. "Have a seat!"
Burrage explained she couldn't stay and asked Morgan where she could score drugs. She said she was working as a middle-man for another buyer interested in the Duke Manor market.
Morgan couldn't suggest anyone in the complex that would sell to Burrage. But he admitted he had his own small stash.
"I just keep it around the house," he said. "I'll show you what it look like."
Inside his bedroom, Morgan showed Burrage drugs that aren't very distinguishable on the video. Morgan had been drinking that day and suggested that Burrage get high with him. She wasn't interested.
"I'm not trying to get in trouble," she said, leaving.
"Sorry about that, guys," she told the police officers through the microphone as she walked across the parking lot.
When she returned to the police truck, she explained Morgan was not a dealer; nonetheless, police sent her back out to score drugs from him. Upon her arrival, Morgan suggested that she buy drugs from someone living on the floor above him. Burrage went upstairs, but the man at that apartment had no drugs to sell her.
Burrage returned to Morgan's place. There is no footage of a drug transaction on the video. But when she reunited with the police officers, they searched her and found a bag of crack; she didn't have the $20 they had given her. An SBI analyst later determined that the crack amounted to one-tenth of a gram.
During his pre-trial interview, Morgan seemed incredulous. "Maintaining a dwelling?" he said. "It's silly. If I get found guilty, I can't get another apartment. This young lady had gotten busted, and I was the only person available."
Burrage's criminal record includes forgery and a drug paraphernalia charge. Morgan appears to have one mark on his criminal record; in 1983 he was convicted in Wake County for driving under the influence with a revoked license.
During opening statements, Morgan's attorney, Daniel Meier, questioned certain uses of confidential informants. In many cases, one defendant's charges are dropped in exchange for another set of charges to be levied on another defendant. (Burrage's pending charges during the Duke Manor operation were dropped two weeks later for unrelated reasons, according to the police.)
Meier also suggested the police used unfair pressure to set up Morgan. The officers, he said, "are pushing people to do things they don't want to do."
During his cross examination of Craig, Meier asked if police investigators put undue force on confidential informants to induce drug sales.
"I don't at all," said Craig. "If they sell drugs, they go ask if they can purchase drugs, and the individual either sells it to them or they don't."
Craig conceded that Burrage told him Morgan was not a dealer. But, he added, "I charged him for the laws he broke."
Morgan did not testify on Tuesday.
However, Burrage's testimony alluded that Morgan was a user and not a major dealer. She had never bought drugs from Morgan before that day, she testified, although he had given her some.
And while Morgan did offer to sell her drugs in this case, she testified, "I was looking for a larger quantity."
The trial was still going on at press time Tuesday. Check back at the INDY's news blog, indyweek.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline "An informant, a user and a $20 deal"