ILLINOIS EDITORIAL: Never forget the boy who refused to steal candy

Five-year-old's sense of right and wrong cost him his life

Twenty-five years ago, on Oct. 13, one of the most heartbreaking crimes in Chicago history startled Americans. From the Chicago Tribune’s first report:

“Two boys, ages 10 and 11, asked a 5-year-old to steal candy for them, then dropped him to his death from a 14th-floor public housing complex window when he refused, Chicago police said.”

The older boys had taken Eric Morse and his 8-year-old brother to a vacant apartment in the decrepit high-rise. In signed confessions they later admitted that they did, in fact, kill Eric because he had refused to steal candy for them. During a 2001 civil trial in which they testified as witnesses, one of the two said Eric was terrified and hurt after being repeatedly thrown down a flight of stairs, stabbed in the face with a butter knife and sprayed in the eye with a disabling chemical. As Eric struggled for his life, and as his brother tried to pull him back inside, Eric had shouted, “I want to go home.” The other youth specified that Eric had been lifted by his legs and dangled outside the window before he was dropped.

Eric’s mother would testify that her tearful 8-year-old came to her: “Mama, Eric fell. Come on.” She said she found Eric lying face-up and breathing but unresponsive to her entreaties. He was pronounced dead a half-hour later.

The free fall of Eric Morse lasted some 3.5 seconds and still reverberates: His name routinely appears on lists of young victims – Benjamin Wallace, Dantrell Davis, Hadiya Pendleton, Tyshawn Lee ... – of notorious Chicago slayings. The older boys were found delinquent in juvenile court and sentenced to the maximum 5 years’ incarceration. The Chicago Housing Authority demolished the high-rise in 1997.

But our focus today is on Eric, and 1994. He was one of 114 children ages 16 or younger who were slain in Chicago that year.

The Tribune wrote after his death that the 5-year-old, in his resolve to do right rather than wrong, had confronted all of us with a hard question: how to nurture more children who have his moral sensibilities. That question endures in a city that loses too many of its young people to their dangerous choices and the sometimes fatal consequences.

We hope Chicagoans, and all those Americans who followed this case 25 years ago, never forget the boy who refused to steal candy.

During his funeral at Holy Angels Catholic Church, the priest said Chicago could end its violence if each of us has the courage to choose right over wrong that Eric had displayed.

The memory of Eric Morse is but one reason among a relentless surge of reasons for all of us to work to stanch the bloodshed: Every year here, hundreds of young Chicagoans still are hitting the ground.