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Grim testimony begins in Bloomingdale library rape case against Kendrick Morris

TAMPA — On a bloodstained driveway outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library, relatives of a missing teenager screeched her name until their voices were raw.

In a Hillsborough County courtroom Wednesday, those frantic moments came alive as jurors heard a 911 call recorded the night of April 24, 2008.

After two years, contentious court motions and a grueling two days of jury selection, the time had finally come for 19-year-old Kendrick Morris to stand trial in the case. This month, he was convicted in the 2007 rape of a 62-year-old day care worker.

In this trial, he is accused of raping and beating an 18-year-old East Bay High School student outside the library so severely that she remains unable to walk, see or remember the night that changed her life.

The people of Tampa Bay don't know her name, which has been left out of countless news stories because of the nature of the crime. But the public rallied with fundraisers and followed every step of her hard, slow recovery.

The victim spent Wednesday in physical therapy, her mother at her side.

Her sister represented the family in the front row of the courtroom as a prosecutor held up the young woman's torn clothes and displayed photos of her skin covered in blood, grass and bug bites.

The sister maintained composure. Those images were already ingrained in her memory.

The first witness to take the stand was Rachel Hall, the victim's best friend and the last person to ever hear her speak.

They spoke that night by cell phone after the victim got off her late shift at Abercrombie & Fitch and drove to the library to drop off some books.

"Do you remember what you were talking about?" a prosecutor asked.

Hall smiled. "It was probably something silly," she said. Both were looking forward to prom.

As the victim pulled into the closed library, she told Hall she saw a "weird guy" sitting on a bench outside.

"I told her to hurry up," Hall testified. Hall heard a door chime and asked why she was getting out of her car. Her friend said the books were in her back seat. Hall heard her friend fumble with a book drop. Then, she testified, "I heard the scream."

On Wednesday, witnesses reconstructed the moments that followed.

Hall called her friend Priscilla Viera, who rushed to the library with her mom and her sister.

They found the victim's car abandoned, her cell phone broken in two and an alarming discovery that Viera screamed into a 911 call: "There's blood all over the floor!"

The victim was discovered in a field behind the library. She was unconscious, her face swollen and bruised. She wore a gray sweater, but from the waist down was naked.

She would not be able to tell anyone what happened to her.

But, assistant prosecutor Rita Peters told jurors, "our victim left a blood trail for you — a blood trail to tell you what happened, a blood trail that led to our attacker."

It started at the car, she said, and moved to the front of the library, next to disturbed mulch where investigators found her flip-flop. The trail continued into the darkness, where her face and parts of her body touched a wall.

"That blood trail leads you to her body," Peters said, "where she is bleeding from her most private areas. But her blood trail didn't end there."

Her blood was found at Morris' home, on his clothes, Peters said. He left DNA inside of her and fingerprints on a plastic Wendy's utensil by her leg. Others saw him on the benches minutes before the attack.

Morris, she said, was the "weird guy."

When deputies arrested him, he was a fat 16-year-old who wore hooded sweatshirts. By his trial Wednesday, he was a slender 19, sitting attentively over a notepad, clad in a crisp shirt and tie.

He faces life in prison.

Morris' public defender, Rocky Brancato, told jurors to lower their passions and listen to the facts. He said they would hear from people who saw Morris after the rape that night, not sweating, or panting, or dirty.

He told them surveillance video captured Morris at a Walmart just minutes after the attack, a mile away. Prosecutors will say the time stamp was wrong.

"A case is only a strong as its weakest link," Brancato said. "In this case, the weakest links are a couple of investigators."

He said one who handled Morris' DNA sample lied on a search warrant application to get it. He said another was reckless in handling the surveillance video.

"There's one thing that's not in dispute in this case," Brancato said:

This was a horrific tragedy.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Grim testimony begins in Bloomingdale library rape case against Kendrick Morris 09/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 7:19am]
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