TAMPA — Two years after a vicious assault outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library shattered the life of a young woman, jurors today will consider the fate of a young man.
Did Kendrick Morris, then 16, rape and brutally beat a young woman the night of April 24, 2008? Or was he more than a mile away during the attack, shopping at Walmart?
If jurors find Morris guilty, his sentence would be limited by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that softens penalties for juvenile offenses in some circumstances.
Morris, now 19, is accused of crimes that could put adults in prison for life. He awaits sentencing on a prior rape conviction. In both rapes, he was charged as an adult. But this year, the high court ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to sentence defendants to life without the possibility of parole for crimes other than homicide that they committed before turning 18.
In Florida, life means life. The state abolished parole in 1983. Only those convicted of crimes before then are eligible for parole.
So what do judges do if they want to give the maximum? Would a 100-year sentence be considered life? How about multiple 30-year terms? Long sentences could invite appeals.
Those kinds of specifics will be decided in future court rulings. For now, judges are on their own.
"It's a huge dilemma," said Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe, who spoke in general terms Tuesday and did not comment about the Morris case, over which he presides.
Tharpe said his staff is researching cases in other jurisdictions for direction. One of his recent sentences will be affected by the ruling.
Before the Supreme Court decision, Tharpe sentenced 15-year-old Jose Walle to life for robbing, abducting and raping two Apollo Beach waitresses.
Walle's attorney made a motion to correct the sentence after the ruling, and prosecutors didn't contest it. A status review is scheduled for Nov. 17. Tharpe has asked both sides to give him memos.
The Supreme Court said juvenile convicts can still spend the rest of their lives in prison. They just need a "realistic opportunity" for release.
Judges can't give that to them from the bench. It's up to legislators. One already has an idea.
Rep. Michael Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, has drafted a bill that would give defendants affected by the ruling the opportunity for parole after 25 years. They would have to meet some criteria, including a good disciplinary record in prison and the achievement of a GED. The bill would allow judges to sentence juveniles to life, with a possibility, but not a promise, of parole.
The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association came up with a similar option: Give juvenile convicts the possibility of parole after 20 years.
They petitioned Florida's Executive Clemency Board. But Gov. Charlie Crist didn't like the idea. Some inmates could be released too soon, said Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey. "He doesn't want offenders to be on the streets," Ivey said. The board has not acted on the petition.
Prosecutors in the Morris case would not say what kind of sentence they might seek — not when a jury still has a job to do.
Jurors listened to defense witnesses on Tuesday who said they saw Morris in the hours after the rape. A McDonald's cashier, a taxi driver and two neighbors didn't notice the signs one might expect after this kind of crime, such as sweating or injuries or blood on his clothing.
Jurors also heard that detectives found some of the evidence, including a plastic Wendy's utensil broken to a sharp point, after crime scene tape had been removed and the library reopened. Assistant public defender Rocky Brancato told jurors during his opening statements that the crime scene was "compromised."
And jurors watched snippets again of a Walmart surveillance tape that captures Morris entering the store at 10:22 p.m., a mere seven minutes after the rape began a mile away.
Prosecution witnesses have said that the time stamp is wrong and that Morris was really there after 11:30 p.m.
They've said Morris' DNA was found on a swab taken from the victim, who suffered brain damage from the attack and remains unable to see, speak, hold her head upright or remember the rape.
A DNA analyst has also said she found the victim's blood on a black hooded sweatshirt detectives got from Morris' home.
The trial resumes this morning with closing arguments, before it heads to the jury.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.