In theory, minimum mandatory sentencing laws ensure that criminal penalties are handed down evenly. In reality, they can create glaringly unjust outcomes like in the case of Kyle Moran, who committed murder as a teenager, spent more than two decades in prison and has rebuilt his life since his release. Now he appears headed back to prison, condemned by a minimum mandatory law that leaves no room for discretion, common sense or mercy.
Moran was a troubled 16-year-old when he and two friends took off from their hometown in Massachusetts, committing burglaries along their route, which ended in Tampa. After a few days they wanted to return home but needed money and a car. On June 7, 1994, the teens broke into the Palmetto Beach home of 73-year-old Manuel Huerta. Moran pointed a rifle at Huerta, who grabbed a knife. Moran shot him in the face.
Charged with burglary, robbery and murder, Moran was sentenced to life in prison. Years later, a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. Part of the reasoning: Adolescents are less capable of appreciating the consequences of their actions because their brains aren’t fully developed. Over a stretch of about 10 years, the court also struck down capital punishment for juveniles and life sentences for juveniles not convicted of homicide. Viewed today, those sentencing practices seem shockingly harsh and cruel.
The rulings led Florida and other states to amend their juvenile sentencing laws and gave thousands of young offenders a new day in court. Moran’s came in 2018, when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez heard testimony about Moran growing up in poverty, witnessing abuse and drinking alcohol to cope. Moran himself was tearful and apologetic. The judge re-sentenced him to the time he’d already served — nearly 24 years.
After gaining his freedom, Moran volunteered making meals for the homeless and building bikes for people without transportation. He landed a job installing sprinklers in new buildings. He says he has saved money for a down payment on a house and hopes to get married.
None of that mattered last month, when Moran was back in court after losing an appeal based on Florida’s minimum mandatory sentence for juveniles who commit murder. It calls for 40 years, period. So Fernandez, the judge who considered all the evidence and decided Moran had served enough time, had no choice but to impose a 40-year sentence and give Moran 45 days to get his affairs in order and turn himself in. He vowed to comply.
It should be noted that Huerta’s son, Bob Huerta, has always wanted Moran to stay in prison for life, and his wishes should not be discounted. The premeditated, unprovoked murder of a father in his own home certainly deserves a long prison sentence. But Moran has already served that, and the people who have helped him get back on his feet think he deserves another chance. Their voices matter too.
Moran appears to be a portrait of rehabilitation — and a clear case for restoring discretion in Florida’s sentencing laws. Mandatory minimums are the reason some people addicted to opioids went to prison — they were charged as drug traffickers and sentenced as such. Remember Marissa Alexander, the Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her husband? She was ensnared by Florida’s 10-20-Life mandatory minimum statute. It didn’t matter that her husband had been abusive and she was afraid of him.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who now runs the office that handled the original case, acknowledged he does not like “the outcome or the law that requires it.” Moran’s next hope is to seek a review of his case after he has served 25 years, which could be soon. Warren should not stand in the way of that review giving Moran the freedom he has earned. In fact, he should support it.
A fair justice system must trust the discretion of judges to look at the evidence, consider the circumstances and apply appropriate sentences. Mandatory minimums handcuff their ability to consider cases individually. A teenager who committed a tragic crime, served his time and has dedicated himself to being a better man deserves at least that much.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.