Sunday, April 22, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg woman fights again to keep father's killers in prison

On Aug. 21, Susan Morrison will travel to Tallahassee to argue that the two men who killed her father should stay in prison.

In the nearly 40 years since the murder, Morrison has been to every parole hearing for Arthur Copeland and Alfred Rosher.

This will be number 28.

Morrison, a 69-year-old St. Petersburg resident, said she always has the next parole hearing marked on her calendar. She keeps all of the court documents organized in boxes and binders.

She still gets sick when she thinks about her father's death.

The two men murdered Lester Morrison, 62, on April 3, 1974, at the cemetery where he worked. After Rosher shot Morrison, who was deaf and mute, both of them rifled his pockets and took about $85. They were sentenced to life for second-degree murder but became parole eligible in 1986.

"I'd like to get peace from that, but it will never happen," she said. "Why do I have to fight to keep them in prison? … That's not fair, but that's the law."

• • •

Parole was abolished in Florida in 1983, but more than 5,000 inmates who committed crimes before that are still parole eligible, said Tena Pate, chairwoman of the Florida Parole Commission.

The inmates and their victims — or their family members — are still entangled in the parole process, anxiously waiting year after year for the commission to decide their case.

Every person who was given a prison sentence before the law changed had the right to parole consideration after a certain number of years, said Pate, who was appointed in 2003 and is in her third year as chairwoman.

"We're carrying out the laws that existed at the time of sentencing," she said. "If we can successfully … allow someone to re-enter society, then we will."

In 2012, the commission paroled 29 people — 16 of whom were convicted of murder.

Four of the 29 parolees committed their crimes in the Tampa Bay area in the 1970s and '80s, including a woman who murdered another woman in a lover's triangle and a man who bound an 80-year-old woman while he took $17 and silverware from her house. Both were serving life terms.

Another paroled inmate was given a 100-year-long sentence for shooting a store attendant during a robbery. The other was sentenced to life for numerous unarmed robberies — including a series of purse-snatchings — and aggravated assaults.

Parole was intended to help control the prison population and to provide incentives for inmates to stay out of trouble, said Joe Bodiford, a Tampa defense lawyer and adjunct professor at Stetson University College of Law.

At the time parole was abolished, critics said the commission ultimately decided how long someone would stay in prison, so judges' sentences were essentially meaningless. The new guidelines meant that the sentence would accurately reflect how long someone would be incarcerated.

• • •

The commission considers a criminal's entire history when evaluating him or her for parole, said Pate, who had a long career in Florida criminal justice before becoming a commissioner — a full-time job that pays about $90,000. Commission members look at the crime for which the inmate was incarcerated, prior criminal activity, behavior while in prison and history of substance abuse, among other factors, to determine if the person is a risk to re-offend.

Listening to the often-moving testimony from inmates' and victims' loved ones at weekly parole hearings is one of the hardest parts of the job, Pate said. Making a decision is often not easy.

"It's an art," she said. "It can absolutely break your heart listening to both sides."

Going to hearings year after year can be tough for victims' loved ones who feel they're responsible for keeping the inmates in prison, said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who occasionally appears at parole hearings on behalf of the state.

Parole specialist David Mack, who has represented Rosher for about 20 years, said he believes the commission tends to be biased toward victims.

Emotional testimony from the victim's side can cloud evidence showing the inmate would not be a risk to society if released, Mack said. He said Rosher is a strong candidate for parole, but the commission has ignored evidence that he has reformed because Morrison and the state dwell on the brutality of the murder.

"The commission is supposed to be impartial," Mack said. "My honest analysis is that the commission — as part of its mission — is quite sympathetic to victim opposition."

Bartlett, who has appeared at hearings for Copeland and Rosher, said they should stay in prison because the murder was so atrocious.

"Some of that is retribution," he said. "Some of that is punishment."

• • •

Victims' families, Pate said, are often more pleased with commission decisions than inmates.

That is of little comfort to Morrison, who once took an FBI class on repeat offenders to better understand her father's killers. She said she doesn't believe Rosher or Copeland will ever be ready to leave prison.

Both Rosher, 61, and Copeland, 67, had criminal records prior to the murder and do not have clean records in prison.

Copeland has been written up 17 times for offenses including sex acts and weapon possession. Rosher has been written up twice. His last offense was in 2002 for possessing contraband.

There is nothing Copeland or Rosher could do, Morrison said, to convince her they are ready for release.

"They did commit a heinous crime, and they need to be responsible for their actions," she said. "I've never heard that they've been sorry or express remorse. … So why would they deserve to be out?"

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Lauren Carroll at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LaurenFCarroll.

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