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Tampa court weighs new sentence for man who got life as a teen

Kyle Moran, who served 25 years in prison before his 2019 release, was back in court Monday for a sentence review.
Kyle Moran arrives to court for a sentence review hearing in his case. Moran served 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at 16.
Kyle Moran arrives to court for a sentence review hearing in his case. Moran served 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at 16. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 30
Updated Aug. 30

TAMPA — On the witness stand, Kyle Moran talked about the progress he has made after serving 25 years in prison for a crime he committed at 16.

He talked about completing the transitional living program at Abe Brown Ministries, the educational certificates he has earned, the job he has worked for more than a year with a company that installs fire sprinklers. He talked about how he has never violated probation, and how he recently paid off his court fees.

Then came a question from his attorney: How does he deal with the fact that more than a quarter-century ago he was involved in the loss of a person’s life?

Moran, 43, his voice quavering with emotion, said it wasn’t something he intended, and that for many years he struggled with what he had done.

“I realized for me to move on I have to put it behind me,” he said. “It’s not that I’ve forgotten. But I realize I can’t change what happened, but I can change who I am from that day forward.”

Related: Tampa Bay man released from life sentence, set free pending review
Kyle Moran testifies Monday on his behalf during a sentence review hearing for in his case. Moran served 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at 16-years-old.
Kyle Moran testifies Monday on his behalf during a sentence review hearing for in his case. Moran served 25 years in prison for a murder he committed at 16-years-old. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Moran, 43, testified Monday before a judge who will determine whether he remains free. He was convicted as a teen in the 1994 shooting death of Manuel Huerta, a retired Tampa bus driver.

Once condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison, Moran was released two years ago after a judge decided he had served his time. It was the result of a series of Supreme Court opinions that changed the way the legal system treats juveniles.

Since his release, Moran has worked to build a life. But early this year, it appeared his freedom may be jeopardy after the state won an appeal, in which they argued that the law mandated a minimum mandatory 40-year sentence.

But ultimately, Hillsborough prosecutors agreed that Moran had served 25 years, making him eligible for an automatic review of his sentence.

Most of what lawyers asked a judge to consider Monday was what was said at Moran’s 2018 re-sentencing hearing. Assistant State Attorney Courtney Derry said she had spoken with the victim’s son, Robert Huerta. He was not in court Monday, but his feelings had not changed: He wants Moran to remain in prison.

It was the late spring of 1994 when Moran and two teen friends ran away from their Massachusetts hometown and came to Florida. After a few days seeking work in Tampa, they were broke and wanted to return home. They decided on a robbery.

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On June 7 that year, they stormed into Huerta’s Palmetto Beach home. Moran, armed with a .22 caliber rifle, demanded money and car keys. Huerta, 73, who had been cutting up food in his kitchen for breakfast, tapped the end of the gun with a knife. Moran shot him.

The teens were found guilty of burglary, robbery and murder. Michael DuPuis received a 20-year sentence. Moran and Floyd LaFountain got life in prison.

That was long before the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional for juveniles to receive life sentences without a meaningful opportunity for release. The high court drew from brain science, which shows young people are less capable of appreciating consequences for their behavior.

LaFountain was released in 2017, having served 22 years. Moran had his own resentencing hearing a year later.

Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez heard details of his abusive upbringing and troubled early years. She also heard from Moran, who described the terror of entering prison as a kid, and expressed regret for his mistake.

He echoed the same Monday, when asked what he would say to the victim’s son.

“All I can say is I’m so sorry and if I could go back and change it I would,” he said. “But I know sorry doesn’t change the pain he feels and I understand that and that’s something I got to live with.”

Alton Kemp, a pastor who runs a men’s ministry at the 34th Street Church of God, said Moran is a regular participant, eager to study scripture, and a positive influence for other men. Larry Hall, his work supervisor, said Moran is dependable and quick to learn.

His sister, Marriah Roberts, described watching him adapt to life after prison, how he quickly picked up on new technology and learned new skills. She described his life in the transition program at Abe Brown Ministries, how he would send her inspirational messages every morning. He thinks hard before making decisions, she said. Now living with her family, he helps around the house, he spends time with his nephews, he asks them what they learned each day.

He tells them to avoid the mistakes he made as a young man.

“I was 16 then,” Moran said in court. “I’m 43 now. Even if I had wanted to stay the same I don’t think I could stay the same. I’m a very different person. I’m not perfect, I make mistakes. But I like the person I’ve become.”

Judge Fernandez said she would issue a written sentencing order by Sept. 30.