TAMPA, Fla. -- For Kendrick Morris, things did not go as planned Thursday inside a Hillsborough County courtroom. Morris was hoping for a sentence reduction, instead – he got life in prison.
Morris had been serving 65 years for the rape and beating of Queena Phu outside the Bloomingdale Library in 2008.
Morris was 16 at the time, so recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings made him eligible for a sentence reduction hearing.
Instead, Judge Chet Tharpe went the opposite direction and gave Morris life in prison.
“I believe that the sentence was just. I believe that justice was served,” said Anna Donato, Queena’s sister and caretaker. “We forgive him, and we have compassion for him, but that does not mean that we believe that he should be out of prison.”
The court recently opened the door to resentencing hearings for prisoners who committed their crimes as juveniles, deeming their lengthy sentences unconstitutional.
But the hearings offer no guarantees, as Morris found out the hard way.
At Morris’s original trial and sentencing Tharpe told Morris if the law had not set limits, he would have given him life in prison.
“If ever there was a case they cried out for a life sentence, this is the case,” said Tharpe.
Morris and his lawyers were likely hoping for an outcome more along the lines of a resentencing case in February.
Floyd LaFountain, who was 16 at the time, was with a couple of friends when they robbed and killed a Tampa man.
But LaFountain wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger. He had been a model citizen behind bars. And so, after 23 years of a life sentence, his defense, prosecutors and even the judge agreed LaFountain should go free.
Staring at 65 years, Morris's lawyers apparently figured it was with rolling the dice for their client.
But a resentencing hearing can be a gamble.
While it opens the door for a possible sentence reduction, it's not guaranteed.
In Morris's case, instead of reducing the 65-year sentence, Tharpe cited more recent Florida law and increased the sentence to life behind bars.
Unlike LaFountain, Tharpe said Morris acted alone when he raped, beat and left Queena Phu for dead.
“The court finds that the defendant was the sole participant in these offenses,” said Tharpe, “Which the court finds very troubling.”
The judge also cited ongoing behavioral issues for Morris behind bars, and said he could see no reason to believe Morris would ever be rehabilitated.
It was a bittersweet decision for Queena’s family.
“I believe justice was served. But, in the end, you know, both lives are now sentenced to life,” said Donato, “And it's just such a sad and unfortunate situation for everybody involved. “
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