BROOKSVILLE — A trial date has been set for a Weeki Wachee teenager who was involved in a head-on collision that left Hernando sheriff's Capt. Scott Bierwiler dead in February 2009.
Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing ruled that the highly anticipated trial for Andrew Frank Morris, now 18, would start the morning of Dec. 13.
Morris faces charges of third-degree murder and grand theft of statutory property. If convicted, he could be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison.
Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino, Hernando's chief homicide prosecutor, said he was optimistic about reaching a plea deal before going to trial.
"I'm hopeful that we'll resolve the case short of trial," Magrino said. "But that's in the defense's court. I don't want to further traumatize the victim's family."
Morris' attorney Robert Whittel did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.
Authorities say Morris, then a 16-year-old junior at Nature Coast Technical High School, slipped out of his house about 5 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2009, and took his parents' 2002 Mitsubishi Montero without permission.
Morris was driving the sport utility vehicle west on Powell Road, south of Brooksville, about 5:45 a.m. when he apparently 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 three broken vertebrae — among other injuries — that required extensive surgical reconstruction, Whittel has said.
Back at Morris' home, his parents — George and Andrea Lyle — realized their car was missing, dialed 911 and reported that the Montero had been stolen. In sworn statements a day later, the Lyles said their son didn't have permission to take the vehicle.
This provided the state justification for the grand theft and murder charges, prosecutors said. Under state law, a third-degree murder is a death committed in the commission of another felony, an elevated charge from vehicular homicide, which involves a death in the course of reckless driving.
The awkward reality: The case against Morris relies heavily on the statements of his parents.
Bierwiler's family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Morris and his parents seeking financial damages in excess of $15,000. It alleges five counts of negligence, claiming that the Lyles knew and consented to Morris operating the SUV — language needed for an insurance claim against them for culpable negligence.
In court Friday, Rushing also set Nov. 5 as a date for attorneys to take the depositions of the Lyles.
Magrino had filed a motion Sept. 24 asking Rushing to order the Lyles' criminal and civil attorneys to agree upon a date after previous depositions were canceled. The Lyles' civil attorney, Virgil William Wright III, responded with a motion Thursday to strike Magrino's request, arguing the prosecutor had "misstated the facts surrounding the scheduling" of the deposition.
Wright did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Friday.
Magrino said it was the first time in nearly 30 years as a prosecutor that he had ever filed that sort of motion. But the prosecutor said he had little choice, as he was insistent on coming to some sort of resolution in the case.
Hinting that the problem may not be with the family but with their representatives, Magrino noted, "From day one, the Lyles have been cooperative with law enforcement. … I don't think Mr. and Mrs. Lyle are trying to be the obstructionists here."
And Magrino acknowledged — as he has before — that his urgency to push this case is in part because of the high priority he places on homicide cases involving law enforcement officers.
"All victims are important," Magrino said. "But law enforcement victims and families are the cases I give most priority to."
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.