The teens hid their bicycles in the bushes and approached the house in the dark on the dead-end road. • The 19-year-old kicked the door in. The 17-year-old followed the 19-year-old. And the 14-year-old, Tim Kane, Timmy to his family, a high school freshman, followed the 17-year-old. It was late on a Sunday night, Jan. 26, 1992, and they were inside the house in Hudson. • The oldest teen ordered a man who lived there onto the ground, held a sawed-off shotgun a quarter of an inch from the back of his neck, and pulled the trigger. The middle teen stabbed the man's elderly mother so violently he nearly severed her head. They chopped off the man's little finger to show off to friends.
Kane first hid behind the dining room table. Then he said he wanted to leave, but the teen with the sawed-off told him it was too late. So he stood in the corner, shaking, and looked out the window and heard the begging of the people and the boom of the shotgun blast.
The 19-year-old got the death penalty, the 17-year-old got life in prison with the possibility of parole after 50 years, and Kane, not done growing yet, got life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25.
Now, nearly two decades later, legislators in Tallahassee are considering a bill called the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act. The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether life in prison for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment. And a group of people stretching from Sarasota to Tennessee is pushing for Kane to be freed. Now that he's a man, they believe, it's time to remember that he was a boy.
"I got what I deserved. I did wrong things," Kane said not long ago at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell. "But I like to think, I like to hope, that someone can change."
He's 32. "I'm not that 14-year-old boy anymore," he said.
Kane's dad was a trucker and an odd-jobber. His mom was waiting tables at Red Lobster and taking classes for nursing. After they divorced, in 1990, he had little structure and supervision. The kid with the high IQ of 137 started to let his grades slip, and also started spending time with tougher kids — including Bobby Garner, the 17-year-old, who hung out with Alvin Morton, the 19-year-old.
Morton liked to drill holes in the shells of turtles and was a fire-starter and a bed-wetter, and Garner was a chunky, lazy dropout of barely average intelligence.
That weekend, Kane slept over at Garner's house, which had become the norm, which to him meant mostly junk food and video games.
He was arrested at Morton's house early the morning after the murders and soon was charged as an adult, not as a juvenile. There was no debate. "Not even a thought," prosecutor Mike Halkitis said.
Florida around the time of the crime had developed an international reputation as the kid-crime capital of America.
In 1993, teens killed two German tourists in Miami, and another bunch killed a British tourist in the Panhandle. A rattled public pressed politicians to pass laws that made it easier for courts to treat kids like adults. The emphasis in juvenile justice shifted from prevention and rehabilitation to prosecution and punishment. From 1991 to 1995, the state's juvenile justice budget tripled, and Florida started putting more kids in prison, and for longer, than any other state in the country.
Meanwhile, in the two-plus years he spent waiting for his trial, Kane went through puberty in the Pasco County Jail. He grew from 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds to 6-foot-1 and 170.
During depositions before Kane's trial, friends of the group described him as "a scrawny little kid," saying they didn't know him as well as the others.
"Timmy was always the quiet one," Alvin Morton's sister told attorneys.
"He was so much nicer," Morton's sister's best friend said. "He was always sweet."
Morton crowed about the killings, but Kane was "freaked out," friends said, "shaken up," and "pale as your shirt." When he wanted to go home, Morton, who had bullied Kane before by cutting him with a knife, stapling his skin and blowing pepper up his nose, said no. "Nobody's going anywhere."
In his trial, Kane took the stand, hoping jurors might sympathize with him. He said that he thought the house was empty, that he saw the shotgun but didn't think it was loaded, that he heard Morton talking about murder but didn't think he was serious, and that he didn't cut the phone wire even though Morton and Garner said he did. He said he thought they were going to commit a burglary.
"Both these people were killed during the course of the burglary you had just committed?" Robert Attridge, the other prosecutor on the case, asked Kane.
"Yes, sir," Kane said.
Right there, legally speaking, he was guilty as charged. If you're part of a group that commits a felony, like a burglary, and somebody dies during the crime, you're on the hook for first-degree murder no matter the extent of your role.
"A 14-year-old is on trial," Kane's court-appointed attorney, Bob Focht, said in his closing argument, telling jurors his age was something they had to "consider at all times in reviewing the evidence."
Attridge countered: "Does that make these victims any less dead because he was 14 years of age?"
The jury took an hour and 15 minutes to convict Kane of the first-degree murders of John Bowers, 55, and Madeline Weisser, 75.
Before his sentencing, in a holding cell off to the side of the courtroom, Focht told Kane that because of his age, and because of his lesser role in the crime, and if he didn't get in any trouble in prison, he eventually might be a candidate for clemency.
Kane started to cry.
• • •
His first few years in prison, because of his age, he got milk and a piece of fruit with lunch. He's worked for a prison chaplain. He's worked for the last 12 years making 55 cents an hour stamping logos on state letterhead. He's passed the GED test. He's been to his mother's funeral in handcuffs and shackles.
He's never gotten a disciplinary report.
Over the years new research on brain science has offered a more concrete explanation of what parents already know: Teenagers don't always make good decisions. The part of the brain that helps people make decisions based on logic, not emotion, the researchers found, isn't fully developed until the early or even mid 20s. Teenagers, in contrast to adults, they say, are more susceptible to impulsivity and peer pressure and less able to consider consequences.
In 2005, based in part on this science, the Supreme Court decided juveniles can't be sentenced to death. They're less than fully developed so they're also less than fully culpable.
Two years after that, a group of Florida State University law students filed Kane's initial application for clemency, led by professor Paolo Annino of the school's Public Interest Law Center.
A church in Sarasota wants to help Kane in his transition out of prison if he gets out. The congregants signed a petition saying so and sent it to the governor.
Ron Miller, who lives in Nashville, saw Kane on Dateline in 1998 and has led a group called Friends of Tim Kane ever since. He's organizing a letter writing campaign to the governor.
The Second Chance for Children in Prison Act, spearheaded by Annino, favors inmates who "acted under the domination of another." It made it through House and Senate committees last year before being blocked by Rep. Will Snyder, R-Stuart, the chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council. The same thing could happen this year.
The governor's clemency aide says the governor is aware of the Kane case and is getting the letters written on his behalf. But no hearing has been set.
"Tim Kane is one of the best cases we've had," Annino said. "He was a kid, 14 years old, and he didn't kill anyone. There's no dispute. He wasn't part of the violence."
"Tim had to be punished, no two ways about it," said Lois Van Dyke, his grandmother. "But the punishment was way too severe."
Said Focht, his attorney from 18 years ago, who's now retired and living in Land O'Lakes: "Let him out."
Those three advocates for Kane aren't so surprising.
Here, though, are three more that might be:
"I'm a cop," said William Lawless, the lead investigator from 1992. "If he meant to harm those people, if he did harm those people, you lock him up and you throw away the key. But he didn't. I think 18 years is more than adequate."
The prosecutor who during his closing argument told jurors that Kane's age didn't matter?
"His age was something that always set him a little bit apart from the others," says Attridge, now an attorney in private practice. "He had a choice, he made a choice, and it was a bad choice. But I think he deserves a second chance."
And then there's the appellate judge who upheld the conviction in 1997.
"It's a case that's never really left my mind," John Blue said last week. Blue has visited Kane in prison, considers him to be "an amazing young man," and wrote a letter to the governor that ended like this: "True justice must be tempered with mercy …"
Not everybody agrees.
"Obviously, he was the least of the worst of the defendants," said Halkitis, the other prosecutor, "but he's still guilty under the law. He had his choice when he went into the house."
Also, the family members of the murdered: "They don't exist to me," Susan Pimental, sister of John Bowers, daughter of Madeline Weisser, said from her home in Massachusetts about the three defendants. "They're not human."
• • •
Kane's never driven a car. He's never had a bank account. He's never used a cell phone. He's never sent an e-mail. He's never even seen the Internet. He's never had a relationship with a woman.
When he gets a letter from a woman, he can tell from its scent, he says. Prison smells like disinfectant and men.
Every Christmas, he gets a card from his aunt with pictures of her kids, and he keeps the cards in order because he likes to see how his cousins have grown.
In the mornings, before breakfast at 6, he drinks his instant coffee and reads from his Bible. Proverbs. Chapter 1.
My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path. For their feet run to evil and make haste to shed blood.
"I read that all the time," he said earlier this month.
"Am I really worthy of a second chance?" he asked. "Two people lost their lives. They don't get a second chance. I don't think I deserve anything. But I really want to have a chance to have a second chance."
Inside Sumter Correctional, the way from the main building back to where the chapel and the print shop sit is an asphalt path, and on both sides are straight yellow lines. Inmates have to stay on the right side of those lines.
Kane had to go back to his job. He thanked his visitors and got up. He walked carefully on the right side of the straight line on that long path, head up, his eyes on the blue sky past the watch towers and the razor wire.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.