HEADLINE: PRISON RELEASES A DEFIANT MOTHER
BYLINE: By FELICITY BARRINGER, Special to The New York Times
SECTION: Section A; Page 18,
Column 1; National Desk
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 1989
A mother imprisoned for 25 months for defying a court order in a child custody case drove out of the District of Columbia jail tonight, stopping briefly to tell reporters and supporters that she was ''happy and very grateful'' that her confinement was over.
Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, a plastic surgeon, had become a symbol for some women's groups of a mother who would sacrifice her freedom to protect her child. She smiled, kissed her brother and hugged her fiance as she walked through a steady rain toward the reporter's microphones.
''I feel very happy and very grateful to everyone that has helped me,'' she said. ''I will probably cry when I say this, but I want to thank God for every angel on Earth.''
Dr. Morgan was imprisoned in 1987 after refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her daughter, Hilary, who disappeared in 1987, or to surrender the child for court-ordered visits with her former husband. Dr. Eric A. Foretich. Dr. Morgan contends that Dr. Foretich had been sexually abusing the girl almost since her infancy. Dr. Foretich has repeatedly denied the accusations, calling his former wife ''a pathological liar.''
Dr. Morgan was released shortly after 8:30 P.M.. an hour and a half after Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin of the District of Columbia Superior Court signed an order for her release. Earlier in the day, the Court of Appeals for the District ordered an end to Dr. Morgan's imprisonment.
Judge Alprin refused to put any conditions on the release of Dr. Morgan.
Dr. Foretich's lawyer, Elaine Mittleman, argued this evening that Dr. Morgan's release should be conditioned on her willingness to stay in the District of Columbia, adding that she should be required to report to an officer of the court on a regular basis. But Judge Alprin said he had no authority to impose conditions on the release. Judge Alprin acted in the case in the absence of Herbert B. Dixon Jr., the judge who jailed Dr. Morgan for contempt in August 1987. He was out of town.
''We're obviously very pleased,'' Stephen H. Sachs, Dr. Morgan's lawyer, said after the order was signed. ''She is a very, very brave woman.''
Whirlwind of Proceedings
Dr. Morgan's release culminated a whirlwind round of Congressional proceedings, White House action and finally, the release today.
Last week, Congress passed a bill that limits to 12 months the time that a person can be jailed on civil contempt charges in the District of Columbia. Although the measure did not specifically mention Dr. Morgan, its sponsors said it was tailored to free her from jail President Bush signed the bill into law this weekend ''out of compassion for her plight,'' the Presidential spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said.
Dr. Foretich's lawyer filed an appeal opposing Dr. Morgan's release, challenging the law as an unconstitutional legislative interference with a judicial proceeding. His motion argued that the law was ''distinguished primarily by the speed with which it was enacted, the excessive politicization and media pressure brought to bear by Dr. Morgan's allies.''
Dr. Foretich said today that he would not have had an objection to the law if it had also given the Federal Bureau of Investigation the power to hunt for Hilary or any child who had been missing for more than a year as a result of a child custody dispute.
Central Issues in Case Remain
The order for Dr. Morgan's release does not resolve the central issues in the custody dispute. She has repeatedly vowed never to reveal the location of Hilary, now 7 years old, as long as there is a chance the court will allow the child to have unsupervised visits with her father.
Dr. Morgan is Dr. Foretich's third wife. His second wife has also accused him of sexual abuse of their daughter, Heather, 9. Dr. Foretich denies those charges, and has repeatedly said the two women have acted in collusion.
Representative Frank Wolf, Republican of Virginia, said in an interview today that the law left the courts the option of charging Dr. Morgan with criminal contempt of court, rather than the civil charge, if she continues to defy the judge presiding in the custody case. Such a charge would be tried before a jury.
The civil contempt ruling was issued by Judge Dixon and reviewed by the District's appellate court, without jury involvement.
Dr. Morgan's lawyers had argued that her continued jailing violated her constitutional rights. In August the appeals court in the District agreed, ruling that because she is unlikely to produce her daughter, the effect of keeping her in jail without trial had gone from coercive to unconstitutionally punitive.
When Dr. Morgan went into jail in August 1987, it was the third time she had been sent there by Judge Dixon.
In the course of hearings that were closed to the public, with all records later sealed, both sides called expert witnesses who offered clashing opinions on whether Hilary had been abused.
Neither Side Prevailed
At the close of these proceedings, Judge Dixon declared that on the evidence on the abuse question was inconclusive and that because of the failure of either side to prevail he would order that Hilary have an unsupervised visit with her father.
It was in response to this order that Dr. Morgan sent her child into hiding, after Mary L. Froning, Hilary's therapist, said the child was becoming suicidal. Dr. Foretich has repeatedly insisted that Hilary was happy when she visited him, and that the presence of his parents in the house would have precluded any chance for abuse.
Both Dr. Foretich and his parents, also accused of abusing Hilary in a civil suit by Dr. Morgan, a suit that was later dismissed, maintain that Dr. Morgan is mentally ill and that she herself had abused Hilary.
Dr. Morgan's parents disappeared at the same time Hilary did, leading most of those involved in the case to believe that the child is with her grandparents.
Dr. Foretich and Dr. Morgan first met in Fairfax Hospital, where both were on the staff. Dr. Foretich's second marriage was breaking up at the time. After dating Dr. Foretich a few months, Dr. Morgan became pregnant. The two flew to Haiti and were married; Hilary was born Aug. 21, 1982. But even before the birth, Dr. Morgan had left Dr. Foretich; the two were divorced in 1982.
In 1984, after a legal battle, Dr. Morgan was awarded custody of the child; Dr. Foretich had visitation rights on vacations and alternating weekends. It was after visitations in early 1985, when Hilary was 2 1/2, that Dr. Morgan said her daughter gave the first verbal indications that she had been abused.
GRAPHIC: photos of Dr. Elizabeth Morgan and Paul Michel (NYT/Marty Katz); Dr. Eric A. Foretich (NYT/George Tames)
Barringer, Felicity. "Prison Releases a Defiant Mother." The New York Times, September 26, 1989, A18, late edition.