Sunday, May 27, 2018
News Roundup

Convicted Bloomingdale rapist Kendrick Morris sentenced to life in prison

TAMPA — In the same spot where he stood six years ago, the Bloomingdale rapist raised his chin and closed his eyes.

Before the same judge, Kendrick Morris listened, once again, to the details. He heard how he had raped a day care worker at knifepoint, how he had later done the same to a high school senior outside a library.

The last time Morris was here, the judge's hands were tied.

Not this time. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe gave Morris, 25, a life sentence Thursday for a pair of brutal rapes he committed at ages 15 and 16.

"These offenses are not attributable to transient immaturity," the judge said.

Morris was originally sentenced to 65 years in prison, though Tharpe had said he deserved more.

Morris came before the judge a second time because of evolving court decisions that chiseled away at old laws governing how juveniles convicted of serious crimes can be sentenced. A series of U.S. and Florida Supreme Court decisions barred terms that leave juveniles no meaningful chance of release.

In response, the state Legislature amended the law to allow life sentences with the requirement that judges consider factors like age, maturity and intellectual capacity. The new law also provides that juveniles sentenced to life must have their cases reviewed after a specified number of years.

Morris' first sentence, and an appeal, had come in the middle of all that. His case will be reviewed after 20 years.

In imposing a new sentence, the judge showed emotion at times, pausing as he recounted the circumstances of the library rape, the victim's injuries and her continued physical struggles.

Morris stood silently beside his public defender throughout the 40-minute hearing.

"My heart breaks for him," said Anna Donato, whose sister was attacked at the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library. "But I believe the sentence was just. We forgive him and we have compassion for him, but that does not mean we think he should be out of prison."

The victim was an 18-year-old high school senior on April 24, 2008, readying to graduate and attend college. That night, she drove to the library to return books. As she spoke on a cellphone with a friend, she mentioned she saw a "weird guy" near the front of the library. Her friend heard screams before the line disconnected.

Tharpe noted that since the attack, the young woman, now 26, has not regained her ability to see, walk, speak or eat.

DNA linked Morris to the crime and another rape that occurred 10 months earlier. In that case, a 62-year-old worker at a Clair-Mel day care was attacked as she opened the business.

At a hearing last month, a pair of psychologists who examined Morris reported that he suffered abuse as a child, delaying development and maturity.

They reported Morris now has an above-average level of intelligence and is a voracious reader.

But Tharpe questioned the extent to which Morris may have matured in prison. He said Morris could have been just as intelligent at the time of the crimes.

"The court finds the defendant was the sole participant in these offenses," Tharpe said, "which the court finds very troubling."

He noted the 10 months that elapsed between the two crimes, time in which Morris could have reflected on what he had done. Tharpe pointed to prison disciplinary violations, citing them as evidence that Morris continues to struggle following rules.

When Morris was first sentenced in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court had barred life sentences for defendants who were juveniles when they committed nonhomicide offenses. The court said such offenders must be afforded a meaningful opportunity for release.

Tharpe noted that life sentences are intended to be reserved for only the most horrifying of crimes.

At a hearing last month, the victim's friends and family members spoke of the crime's devastating and lasting impact. Many of them returned to court Thursday to hear the sentence.

Donato wept as Tharpe read his order.

Beside her, in the gallery's second row, sat Rita Peters, the former assistant state attorney who handled the case. She left last week and took a job in the Office of Statewide Prosecution, but returned to court for the hearing. Next to her was Mike Sinacore, another of the case's original prosecutors.

When the hearing ended, Peters and Donato embraced. Donato spoke briefly before a throng of TV cameras. She said the life sentence would give closure to her sister and relief to her family from what has been a nerve-wracking experience.

Still, she said, their pain will never end.

"I want to say it's a victory, but it seems wrong to say that," she said. "But I have to say, I think justice was served."

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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