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A Times Editorial

Charges are excessive

A 17-year-old boy causes a terrible car accident by crossing into oncoming traffic in Hernando County. The other driver is killed. The teen is severely injured. He had taken his parents' car without permission but had never been in trouble with the law before.

On first impression, it would seem that this is a tragic accident that should impact the teen's ability to drive in the future. Yet on this set of facts, Andrew Frank Morris was charged as an adult with third-degree murder and grand theft. He is looking at the potential of 20 years in prison.

The charges are unusual and excessive, and there appears to be a reason why. Scott Bierwiler, a well-regarded Hernando County sheriff's captain who many thought would be a candidate for Hernando County sheriff one day, was killed in the crash. While Bierwiler's death should be mourned and Morris should be held accountable for his actions, this case has the feel of the law enforcement community taking care of its own. Even the speed with which the investigation took place — when older similar accidents involving deaths are still under review — suggests that Hernando prosecutors are treating this fatal accident differently than others.

The accident occurred in February at 5:45 a.m. on an empty two-lane road south of Brooksville. Morris' SUV crossed the double yellow line that separates oncoming traffic and hit Bierwiler head-on. Bierwiler died instantly. Morris, a Nature Coast Technical High student, suffered two broken legs, broken vertebrae and other injuries. The young man says he doesn't remember the collision but that he is "very sorry for what had occurred."

There are some odd aspects of this case. At the time of the crash, a sheriff's deputy was at the home of Morris' parents taking a report that the 2002 Mitsubishi Montero Morris was driving had been stolen. This led to the grand theft charge that Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino used as a basis to also charge Morris with felony murder — a charge brought when a death occurs during the commission of another felony.

Morris' parents didn't want to press charges for the theft, but Magrino filed them anyway — he wouldn't have a felony murder charge without it. Why would Magrino go to such lengths? Magrino (though he later said he was misinterpreted) told St. Petersburg Times staff writer John Frank that the death of a law enforcement officer "is the most important case there is." That about says it all.

It also explains why Morris was charged as an adult. The young man apparently was not driving with drugs or alcohol in his system. He has no criminal history. Beyond allegedly taking his parents' car without permission, his actions were not premeditated or uniquely heinous, factors that might justify adult charges.

This is a tragic accident. But unless more facts emerge to justify a murder charge, Morris' treatment by the prosecutor appears to be motivated more by the occupation of who died than by what Morris did.

Charges are excessive 07/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 7:02pm]
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