SIOUX FALLS, SD—A N’West Iowa elementary school principal was quickly found not guilty of misappropriating money from a family trust after a three-day trial in Sioux Falls, SD.
Michael Jay Morran, principal of South O’Brien Elementary in Primghar, was found not guilty of three counts of theft by exploitation on Friday night, Feb. 19. The jury was out for only about an hour and ate supper during that time period as well.
The 10-woman, two-man jury returned its verdict after a long day of testimony, speeches from lawyers and breaks in courtroom battles as ground rules and final instructions were determined. Two other counts had been dismissed the day before by 2nd Circuit Judge John Pekas.
Morran, 54, had been charged with three Class 4 felony counts of theft by exploitation, one Class 5 felony count of theft by exploitation, and one Class 6 felony count of theft by exploitation. He faced a potential lengthy prison term, fines and restitution if convicted.
In 2014, Morran was the administrator of a trust established by his parents, Dick and Tracia Morren of rural Brandon, SD. The couple was elderly, in declining health, and wanted to pass along their 320 acres of farmland as well as the acreage they had lived on for four decades.
But by 2017, Michael Morran’s brother Ric Morren and sister Susan Calmes asked law enforcement to investigate. They questioned some of Morran’s purchases, including $10,000 for a speedboat and $3,000 for a family evaluation he sought during a custody dispute as part of a divorce.
The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation recommended charges and a grand jury convened in late 2019 and indicted Morran, saying he had misappropriated several thousand dollars of his mother’s money between Dec. 28, 2015, and Oct. 3, 2017. Dick Morren died Sept. 9, 2017.
However, Morran’s lawyer, Don McCarty of Brookings, SD, told the jury the money was rightfully owed to Morran for his work as the trust administrator, as well as for 800 hours of labor he put in to maintain his parents’ acreage. He also was within his rights to file for mileage for the numerous trips he made from Iowa to their home.
“This is a family dispute,” McCarty said. “That is what this is. This should never have been a criminal case . . . it’s not even close. It is not even close.”
The jury agreed, quickly finding in favor of Morran.
The case was out of Lincoln County Circuit Court in Canton, SD, but was relocated to Sioux Falls to allow for a larger courtroom to meet COVID-19 social distancing requirements.
After the verdict, Morran, who said he spells his name the traditional Dutch way, said he was relieved and ready to resume his life without this hanging over his head.
“Just glad justice was served,” he said.
Among his first actions, Morran said, was to visit his mother the next day.