Timothy Kane never pulled a trigger, and never swung a knife. He's never committed a truly violent act in his life, and yet the state still holds him responsible for two murders.
Timothy left his mother's home in Pasco County on his bicycle one afternoon in 1992 and has never returned. When he spent his first night in a jail cell, he was 14.
At the time, this was considered justice. Some still believe that to be true.
You are welcome to decide for yourself.
• • •
"I'm sorry about so much, I don't know where to start … I hoped and prayed that I could come home to you one day and make up for all of the heartache and trouble I put you through …''
Timothy Kane in a letter to his mother, Rita, in 2002.
• • •
The crime was horrific. Of this, there is no debate.
It was late in the evening of Super Bowl Sunday when three teenagers busted in the front door of a Hudson home. The intent was burglary; the result far worse.
John Bowers and his elderly mother, Madeline Weisser, confronted the burglars and were savagely murdered. The oldest intruder, a 19-year-old high school dropout, killed the man with a shotgun blast. Then he and a 17-year-old used a knife on the grandmother.
In the trial more than two years later, jurors heard that 14-year-old Timothy Kane stood cowering in a corner during the attack.
His role, both before and after the murders, has been disputed. Some claimed that Kane knew his older friends had mayhem on their minds. He denied this. Others claimed that Kane laughed about the attack afterward. This, he also denied.
What is not in dispute is that Kane never carried a weapon and never came near the violence.
In legal terms, that is a distinction without a difference. Kane took part in a felony in which two murders occurred. That made him legally responsible.
An honors student at Gulf High, Kane had never before been in trouble. When his mother arrived at the Sheriff's Office, she did not request an attorney. She wanted Timothy to accept responsibility and tell the truth.
She had no idea that confessing to burglary would be the same thing as confessing to two murders.
"Obviously, looking back, that was a mistake,'' said Kane's sister, Carolyn Walsh. "My mom never imagined this was a possible scenario. One of the detectives had been talking about charging Timothy with accessory after the fact. Then we get to the arraignment, and he was charged with two counts of murder.
"It was horrible. Absolutely horrible. My mother was devastated. At this point, there was nothing she could do to help him.''
• • •
"I feel I've failed you in coming to prison because I was stupid. But please don't take that as your fault, as I know you did …''
• • •
Keep your nose clean, the public defender told him. Take classes and try to better yourself. Who knows, the governor might one day offer a pardon.
This was when Timothy Kane began to cry.
It was the day of his sentencing in 1994, and he was now 16. A kid who was once tested at a near-genius level IQ was sentenced to life in prison with a chance for parole after 25 years.
Within a year, he had gotten his GED. He would go on to receive certificates of achievement in various prison courses. Hazardous waste training. Wellness classes. Press operator, printing and computer skills.
He was certified in automotive repair even though he's never driven a car. He passed a course in personal development even though he's never had a girlfriend.
He's been in prison for 24 years and has never once received a disciplinary report.
He is the exception. The convict who entered prison as a frightened boy at 14 and turned into a self-possessed, spiritual man of 38. In some ways, he may have adjusted better than those he left behind.
His mother, who had been juggling work and nursing school at the time of his incarceration, began to withdraw. She saw a therapist and started taking prescription medications for anxiety.
Ten years after getting a call from police that her son was implicated in two murders, Rita died of an accidental overdose. She was 54.
In a prison cell, not long afterward, her son wrote her a letter and asked his sister to place it in her casket.
• • •
"I know this piece of paper is really nothing compared to all you've given me but Mom this is all I have to give and I know you understand …''
• • •
John Blue spent seventeen years in a judge's robes, first in the 12th Judicial Circuit and later on the 2nd District Court of Appeal. In all that time on the bench, Judge Blue never once felt obligated to get in his car and drive to a state prison to visit an inmate.
Not until he came across Timothy Kane.
Blue was part of the three-judge panel that denied Kane's appeal in the mid 1990s. Although he could find no legal reason to overturn the conviction, he was so troubled by the circumstances, Blue wrote an opinion specifically designed to draw attention to the case.
Now retired, nearly two decades later, he continues to press for Kane's release.
"This case touched my heart,'' Blue said. "As a judge, you're often required to do things you wish you didn't have to do. … But it was my feeling that he never should have been charged as an adult in the first place.''
Blue isn't the only one who has crossed paths with Kane in the legal system and now wishes to see him set free.
One of the original detectives from the case has publicly supported Kane's release. So has one of the prosecutors.
Professor Paolo Annino of Florida State's Public Interest Law Center has been involved in Kane's case for nearly two decades. Almost nine years ago, Annino and his students applied for review from the state's Executive Clemency Board. The board, made up of the governor and the three Cabinet members, meets four times a year. That means, during the Rick Scott and Charlie Crist administrations, there have been about 36 opportunities to hear Kane's case.
It has yet to come up.
"We've been begging the governor to just put us on the schedule,'' Annino said. "Just give us a hearing and let Judge Blue tell his story. Let the prosecutor tell his story. Let the detective tell his story. … Just give us a chance.''
It seems counterintuitive, but Annino is worried about Kane reaching the 25-year point. Once he becomes eligible for parole, the clemency board probably won't consider his case, and parole can be even more elusive.
"Timothy doesn't like getting his hopes up because it never pans out for whatever reason,'' his sister said. "He's never been a danger to anyone. He made a mistake and he's paid for that. He was 14. When do you say enough is enough?''
In an era when lawmakers are rethinking the wisdom of mandatory sentences and locking up juveniles, the current Florida Cabinet has been trending in the opposite direction.
Under Jeb Bush, clemency was granted 22 times in eight years. Under Crist, it was 13 in four years. In Scott's five years? The number is three.
The clemency board meets again on Tuesday.
Timothy Kane is not on the agenda.