By Michael E. Miller
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The old man cups a weathered hand behind an enormous ear to hear the question. His gaze goes distant, all the way back to that Sunday morning in 1990. Tears slick the crevassed corners of his eyes.
"You ever have a gun pointed at you?" he finally asks. "It's absolutely sickening."
Albert Morris has done everything to forget that day, when his suburban South Dade driveway exploded in a burst of sexual violence that devastated his family and — eventually — led to a life sentence for Dewayne Pinacle, a troubled 15-year-old who raped Morris's daughter and then stole hundreds of dollars in cash and jewelry.
Morris has suddenly found the worst moment of his life thrust into the heart of a raging national debate. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to ban life sentences for juveniles. Indeed, the Florida Legislature will soon consider a bill that would make it easier for defendants Pinacle's age to get out early.
The Sunshine State is a national leader in imprisoning juveniles for life. Hundreds here have been sentenced to life for murder. And we top the nation in life sentences for lesser crimes; of the 109 juveniles who meet that description around the country, 77 are in Florida prisons.
"Long sentences at 15 and under are cruel and unusual because science has proven we're still developing mentally," says Sheila Hopkins, an associate director of Florida Catholic Conference. "They usually don't fully understand what they're doing at that age. To put them away with no hope of parole simply isn't right."
But a close look at the case of Dewayne Pinacle — one of only two Miami-Dade teens given life sentences for non-homicide crimes — makes the argument that some young defendants deserve a life behind bars.
"It's terrible what he did to my family," Morris says. "I don't think that kid should ever get out of jail."
Albert Morris — who asked that his real name not be used for this story — was born in 1931 in rural Pennsylvania and joined the Air Force after high school in the time between World War II and the Korean War. He worked "every job imaginable" in the force, other than as a pilot, at bases from Illinois to Texas to Wyoming.
In 1953, after Morris was discharged, his brother helped him land a job selling tickets for Miami-based Eastern Air Lines. He later met his wife, Karen, through the company. The couple married in the early '60s. They bought a small ranch home on a quiet stretch of SW 107th Court, about a mile east of Florida's Turnpike. In 1968, they had twins — Amy and Catherine. (The names of victims and their friends have been changed to protect their identities.)
The sisters mostly lived together until age 21, when both were University of Miami seniors and Catherine moved in with a friend off-campus. Amy stayed at home with her parents. "They were normal, happy kids," Morris says. "Amy was almost finished with a degree in family therapy."
On April 20, 1990, Amy was up late celebrating. Her boyfriend, Mike Harper, had just graduated from UM. Amy and her best friend, Sherry — Mike's sister — were throwing a party.
Amy, a pretty brunette who had been an honors student at Miami Killian Senior High and then at UM, headed home after midnight.
At the same time, just down the street, two teenagers pulled into a driveway and robbed a woman at gunpoint.
The gunman, 15-year-old Dewayne Pinacle, had grown up less than two miles away in a ramshackle home on SW 146th Terrace. He'd been in trouble for years — first for skipping school and then for busting out windows in an Avis rental car lot. At age 14, he was nailed for burglary.
This night, Pinacle was hanging out with Wayne Seth Grant, an 18-year-old who'd already earned one felony robbery conviction. The two sped away with the woman's wallet.
Then they spotted Amy heading home and followed her to the family's driveway. When she parked, Pinacle sprinted to her car, thrust his arm inside the window, and held a pistol to her head.
The 15-year-old demanded the girl's purse and jewelry. Amy handed them over.
Waving the gun, Pinacle ordered her out of the car and over to the back seat of his ride, where Grant was waiting behind the wheel. He got in beside Amy, and as they cruised down the dark street, he forced her to the floor and told her to undress. Then he raped her. When he couldn't keep an erection, he berated her and threatened to kill her.
The teens stopped five minutes later, near Fairwood Park. Grant, too, raped Amy. When they were finished, Amy asked to put her clothes back on. "That won't be necessary," Pinacle told her. "We're going to kill you anyway."
But first they took her to a nearby Publix with an ATM. Pinacle and Grant took out $200.
Back at home, Morris was having trouble sleeping. He wondered where his daughter was. Just before 3 a.m., he walked into the living room and turned on the TV set. He watched Absence of Malice, the Paul Newman/Sally Field classic.