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Two years later: Accused headed to court, victim still struggling

BRANDON — She can curl her fingers, hold up her head and sit upright, if only for a few moments.

Almost two years after a high school senior was brutally raped and beaten as she returned books to the Bloomingdale Regional Library one night, her progress is slow, her prognosis still uncertain.

But the case against the teenager accused of the crime appears to finally be moving along. In an important hearing Monday, his attorneys will try to persuade a judge to suppress evidence against their client and to throw out statements they say were illegally obtained.

Prosecutors will argue that the teen was treated properly, and that the evidence against him should be allowed.

Kendrick Morris was 16 years old when he was charged in the assault.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office said Morris grabbed the girl as she tried to deposit books into an after-hours drop box.

She was on her cellphone with a girlfriend and described seeing a "weird guy." The friend heard a scream, and the call was cut off.

Friends and family found the victim lying half-naked behind the library. Morris, who is now 18, is accused of beating and sexually battering her, causing multiple strokes. She lost her vision and her ability to speak, swallow, or even hold up her head.

The public defenders representing Morris filed a 76-page motion in January that presents a time line for his whereabouts the night of the attack. It conflicts with the version offered by authorities.

Morris' public defenders noted that he was seen sitting at a bench in front of the library about 11 minutes before the attack, but said prosecutors can't prove he was there when the attack happened.

The State Attorney's Office says Morris went to McDonald's and Walmart after the assault, and blamed a time-line discrepancy on a malfunctioning time stamp on a Walmart security entrance camera. The security manager was able to correct it using images from other cameras taken throughout the store, they said.

Also, Morris had been reported as a runaway, so detectives acted appropriately in questioning him about his activities that night.

"Law enforcement did not exhibit reckless disregard for the truth, but acted with candor and in good faith," prosecutors wrote in a motion.

The girl's mother, meanwhile, said she is not thinking about the legal case. She is focused on her daughter's recovery.

April 24, which marks two years since the attack, will be spent celebrating her birthday. The girl, whom the Times is not identifying because of the nature of the crime, turns 20 on April 22.

"I trust the attorneys, I trust the justice system and I trust in God," the mother said. "I am not going to put any energy into paying attention to the case."

The girl's progress has been slow, but had her mother listened to doctors in the beginning, the outcome would be far different, she said.

After the attack, when the girl was unable to move, see, or speak, an initial treating physician told the parents to move her to a nursing home. He said she would never get better.

The mother was appalled at what she saw when she visited a few nursing homes. There were no private rooms, no therapy, no young patients. So she fought to get her daughter help.

Her home was retrofitted for a wheelchair and hospital bed. And her days are filled with therapy sessions. Volunteers and therapists provided by Medicaid offer her speech, occupational and physical training.

She has five sessions a day, some in Sarasota and some at home. A teacher visits weekly to homeschool her. And once a week, she undergoes aquatic occupational therapy. Two chiropractors and an acupuncturist also help. And the family has leased a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for additional treatment.

The girl remains dependent on a feeding tube and a wheelchair. She is able to distinguish shadows, and can verbalize the beginning sounds of a few words.

When she is hungry, she says "hung." Home is "ha." Hurry is "her." She is learning to swallow and is able to eat food with the consistency of mashed potatoes.

When she first started occupational therapy in the water, she had no neck control and her head remained slumped. A year later, she's able to keep her head up out of the water without assistance.

Last week, when she sat up for a few moments, her mother fumbled for her digital camera to capture the milestone. She was so excited her hands shook. She dropped the camera and it broke.

"They are small, baby steps," said Cristy Carmo, who owns True Blue Therapy, one of the few pediatric aquatic therapy businesses in the region. "But for us, that's giant."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Help for the victim

To make a donation, go to any SunTrust Bank and indicate that the money is for the Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim. Or mail a check, payable to Bloomingdale Library Assault Victim, to: SunTrust Bank, Special Handling Department, P.O. Box 27572, Richmond, VA 23261-7572.

Two years later: Accused headed to court, victim still struggling 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 9:19pm]
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