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Hernando teen sentenced to nine months for wreck that killed sheriff's captain

Attorney Robert Whittel, left, and Andrew Frank Morris listen to Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino outline the plea agreement.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Attorney Robert Whittel, left, and Andrew Frank Morris listen to Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino outline the plea agreement.

BROOKSVILLE — The two families never spoke to each other, not the day before at a hearing and not during the final session to determine the fate of the teenager who tragically brought them all to the same courtroom.

Their interaction over the two days was brief and perfunctory. The sentencing hearing on Wednesday lasted about an hour.

But the grief will last forever.

Andrew Frank Morris, now 18, was sentenced to nine months in jail and six years of court supervision after reaching a plea deal for his involvement in the head-on collision that left Hernando sheriff's Capt. Scott Bierwiler dead in February 2009.

Morris faced charges of third-degree murder and grand theft. If convicted, he could have been sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison.

"I'm relieved for the victim's family that they won't have to go through the ordeal of a trial," said Pete Magrino, Hernando's chief homicide prosecutor. "The Bierwiler family … they're a compassionate group. And because of their compassion, that's why the resolution of the case was done in this fashion."

Morris was sentenced as part of the state's youthful offender program. He will serve his time in the Hernando County Jail and follow that with two years of community control and four years of probation.

If Morris completes his sentence without getting into any trouble, the state will remove the conviction from his record.

Both families declined to comment after the sentencing hearing, leaving the lawyers to speak for them. And they both agreed on a singular theme from the morning and the events of the past 22 months.

"There are no winners in this," said Morris' attorney, Robert Whittel, a sentiment Magrino echoed.

Authorities say Morris, then a 16-year-old junior at Nature Coast Technical High School, slipped out of his house about 5 a.m. Feb. 19, 2009, and took his parents' 2002 Mitsubishi Montero without permission.

The teen was driving west on Powell Road south of Brooksville about 5:45 a.m. when he crossed the center line and collided head-on with a dark-colored agency-issued 1999 Ford Crown Victoria driven by Bierwiler, according to reports.

Bierwiler was killed instantly. Morris had two broken legs, a number of broken ribs and other injuries that required surgical reconstruction.

Bierwiler's family also has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Morris and his parents, which is pending. It alleges that Morris' parents knew and consented to Morris operating the sport utility vehicle — language needed for an insurance claim against them for culpable negligence.

With that grim history linking the two families, they filed into Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing's courtroom Wednesday. Magrino and Whittel had been working feverishly in recent days, hoping to reach a deal before the scheduled trial date of Dec. 13.

Bierwiler's family filled the first two rows of benches in the courtroom, and a handful of Sheriff's Office employees sat in a row behind the family.

Some legal experts and laymen had questioned whether the murder charge was excessive, wondering if the case received special attention because Bierwiler was viewed as a likely successor to Sheriff Richard Nugent.

Magrino rebuffed those suggestions, but he never wavered on earlier comments that he places a high priority on homicide cases involving law enforcement officers.

"Some people don't like it when I say that," Magrino said after the hearing. "But those are my No. 1 priority cases."

Magrino said the plea deal was bolstered by the Bierwiler family's eagerness for expediency and leniency and Morris' absence of a criminal record before the collision.

"By all indications, he came from a good family," Magrino said. "It seemed to me that he should be afforded a second chance."

Reach Joel Anderson at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Hernando teen sentenced to nine months for wreck that killed sheriff's captain 11/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 10:08pm]
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