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Class difference concerns victim's sister in Hernando hit-and-run trial

BROOKSVILLE — It was just after midnight Feb. 18 when Anthony Morales, his fiancee and two relatives began their walk to work.

The clock at the day labor agency didn't start until 5 a.m., but they didn't own a car and they needed to leave early to buy lunch at Wal-Mart.

An hour later, as they walked east along a dark stretch of Cortez Boulevard, near the city limit sign, a sheriff's deputy stopped and warned them to watch out for crazy drivers.

Barely a moment later, a Hooters restaurant manager on the way home from work drifted off the road. Jason Morgan Blair hit Morales at 55 mph and didn't stop. Morales died hours later.

His sister, Yvonne Morales, and other relatives came to the first court hearing. They sat near the front wearing homemade T-shirts with his picture screen-printed on the front.

"I want Jason to see … that this is the person he didn't stop to help," Morales said.

She plans to wear her shirt again today when Blair stands trial for the hit-and-run.

It is not uncommon for victims to wear mementos or clutch picture frames. But for Morales, it has become a transformative experience.

As her brother's advocate in the criminal justice system, she began to see the world through his eyes — and realize what it's like to feel like an outsider in your own community.

It's a strange feeling for Yvonne Morales, 33, to adopt. She's not a Hernando County native, but she feels at home. She attended school here. She works here. And she owns a house here.

But her 35-year-old brother never felt comfortable. He came in 1992, when their mother was diagnosed with a fatal disease. He drifted, splitting time between South Florida, where his father lived, and Atlanta. He feared driving and liked big cities with public transit.

"He was very introverted in ways," said Morales, who works with behaviorally challenged adults. "He was kind of in the confines of his own disabilities, or inabilities."

Her brother never graduated high school and never received a GED. ("He took it so many times, so many times, but he just couldn't do it," his sister said.) Holding a job proved problematic. He lived in a mobile home park and relied on public assistance.

He yearned to be someone, to fit in. "He would make these lists of the things he wanted to do, like buying cars, and just stuff that wasn't really tangible. It didn't match," she said.

When it came to the legal system after he was killed, she worried that his meager lifestyle would work against him.

"A lot of people have a tendency to look down on that," she said. "I felt like that would all be used against my brother (at trial)."

Ties cause concern

It's easy to see what justified these fears after the first court hearing.

Blair, then 29, appeared with his father, Gwynn Blair, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper and prominent member in the Brooksville community, standing at his side.

It was awkward. The judge's wife worked at the Brooksville Farm Bureau Insurance office where the elder Blair was regional manager. The criminal traffic prosecutor knew him from Rotary Club, where Blair was a past president.

"I have been blessed to know a lot of people," the elder Blair said in an interview. "I'm just a common old country boy who just tries to do what the Lord wants me to do."

The judge and the prosecutor withdrew. It delayed the case for weeks. Eventually a judge from two counties away was assigned.

"I was informed there would be no judge who could hear this case because of his father's influence," Morales said. "That was a major concern to me."

In her mind, the moment cast a cloud on everything. The investigation. The case. And the outcome.

Anthony Morales' relatives who were at the scene said Jason Blair didn't even slow down. Blair said he slowed but didn't stop because he was scared — virtually the only defensible reason for leaving the scene. "I was not sure I should stop because I thought they were going to come after me," he wrote in his statement.

Blair, who is married with four children, thought about going to the nearby police station, but he didn't. ("Biggest mistake of my life was not stopping," he said later.)

His driving record shows a multitude of tickets, five crashes and a 1999 arrest for driving under the influence at twice the legal limit. His license was suspended twice and revoked once. It was valid the night of the accident.

Authorities stopped him a block from his father's house; he told a deputy that his father was a veteran FHP trooper and he was going to seek his advice. Between the collision and the stop, he called his father once from his cell phone.

Investigators didn't initially conduct a DUI investigation; they said he didn't appear impaired. But six hours later, after Morales died, they collected a voluntary blood and urine sample. It tested positive for prescription drugs and marijuana, but experts were not able to determine whether it was in his system at the time of the crash. It won't get mentioned at trial; neither will the fact that Anthony Morales had drugs in his system.

'Honor Tony'

Yvonne Morales' has been jaded by her experience with the legal system and her community. She talks about class separation. "Affluence is everything," she said. "What you have is going to dictate what people think of you and how you are treated."

The appointment of a new judge, Senior Circuit Judge Victor Musleh, and a new prosecutor, Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee, the Hernando supervisor, won't immediately change her thinking. It will take a verdict by a jury of the community to restore her optimism.

"I'm hoping that (the trial) is going to reinforce my faith in people," she said. "That this will — I don't want to say avenge — but honor Tony.

"If Jason is able to walk away from this without any consequence, what does that say about our community?"

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Class difference concerns victim's sister in Hernando hit-and-run trial 02/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 1, 2009 8:16pm]
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