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Murder charges for Hernando County teen in fatal crash too severe?

BROOKSVILLE — A fatal crash that killed a respected Hernando County sheriff's captain earlier this year shocked the community.

But a prosecutor's decision this week to pursue a third-degree murder charge against the other driver, a severely injured 17-year-old boy, is generating a different outcry:

Did the prosecutor bring stronger charges than are typical in such cases because the victim was a cop? Since when does a teenager who takes his parents' car without permission get charged with grand theft? And why was this case fast-tracked while fatalities involving civilians languish?

These and other questions raised by legal experts and laymen alike speak to a larger point: Are there two legal systems at work, one for law enforcement and one for the everyone else?

"If it hadn't been a cop" it would be different, said Charlie Rose, a former prosecutor and defense attorney who teaches at Stetson University College of Law. "Because it's a police officer, the screws are getting turned up, but that is prosecutorial discretion."

Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino is the Brooksville homicide prosecutor who filed the third-degree murder and grand theft charges Tuesday against Andrew Frank Morris for the death of Capt. Scott Bierwiler, who many considered a likely candidate for Hernando County sheriff some day.

Bierwiler died Feb. 19 when his unmarked police cruiser collided head-on with an SUV driven by Morris. Morris also was charged with grand theft for taking his parents' vehicle without permission from their Weeki Wachee home.

On Tuesday, Magrino told the St. Petersburg Times that "the death of a law enforcement officer . . . to me, that is the most important case there is.'' Later, he rebutted suggestions that the charges were more severe because the case involved a deputy.

"That is a misperception," said Magrino, a former police officer. "I have filed (the same charges) and prosecuted other juveniles . . . in similar situations that resulted in the death of other individuals who were not law enforcement officers."

Magrino cited three specific cases, but failed to remember the names of all those involved.

A spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, which conducted the investigation, similarly rejected any insinuation of special treatment, even though the investigations of two young girls who died Sept. 9 in unrelated fatal accidents in Hernando County remain incomplete.

In one case, a dump truck slammed into the back of a car, killing a 4-year-old girl inside. In the other, a 13-year-old middle schooler was struck by a truck as she walked to school.

There was "no special treatment" in the Bierwiler case, said FHP Sgt. Larry Kraus. "I know murder sounds harsh but unfortunately this is what happens."

Kraus said the prosecutor's office was adamant about the case and the charges — which Magrino doesn't dispute. He said he takes all his cases personally and made the Bierwiler case a priority.

Under state law, the felony murder charge is applicable when the death stems from the commission of another felony. In this case, Morris allegedly took his parents' 2002 Mitsubishi Montero without permission.

Rose, the law professor, called this element of the state's case "weak."

"In my mind, that is stretching the meaning of the felony murder doctrine," he said. "I wouldn't as a prosecutor rely on testimony of parents in a matter that might send their son or daughter to prison."

Magrino said there are facts that support the charges but he cannot disclose the specific evidence at this time.

The felony murder charge also surprised Bruce Bartlett, the chief deputy prosecutor in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. More often, he said, such cases bring a vehicular homicide or manslaughter charge.

"I think this was a little creative charging based on the (known) facts," he said.

But J. Larry Hart, a former state and federal prosecutor not connected to the case, said it's the state attorney's job to "protect the public's interest."

Hart said the law clearly recognizes that certain victims are more important than other victims. For instance, a battery on a law enforcement officer, firefighter or school teacher is more severe than a simple battery under state punishment codes.

Yet he said he understands why the charges are sparking such a fervent discussion about the place of law enforcement in society.

"It's one of those cases," he said, "that brings out those feelings."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Murder charges for Hernando County teen in fatal crash too severe? 07/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 1:24pm]

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