Doctors say Bloomingdale rapist Kendrick Morris could be rehabilitated as state seeks life sentence

TAMPA — For an entire morning, Kendrick Morris listened as a pair of doctors talked about how he is a man of above average intelligence, a survivor of childhood abuse, who regrets his teen crimes and is capable of living safely in society.
"I am trying to learn to like myself," he wrote in prison. "But I have to think about what I did first."

Then, in the afternoon, came the parade of tearful friends and relatives of a young woman that Morris raped outside a Bloomingdale library nine years ago.

They spoke of her continued struggles — the dozen doctors she sees regularly, the constant medical care she requires, her inability to speak or move or enjoy life the way she used to.

Morris gave her a life sentence, they told Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe. And, they said, he doesn't deserve anything less.

Morris faces resentencing for a pair of rapes he committed in 2007 and 2008, when he was 15 and 16. He was originally ordered to serve 65 years in prison, but an appeals court overturned that sentence, citing U.S. and Florida Supreme Court decisions that declared it unconstitutional to give juveniles lengthy punishments without a chance of release.

Tharpe did not announce a new sentence Thursday, saying he needed time to consider the changes in the law.

He is the same judge who sentenced Morris in 2011, when the law barred him from imposing a life sentence. But he said at the time, "if ever there was a case that cried out for a life sentence, this is the case."

Prosecutors echoed the judge's past comments Thursday. They noted the law, which has since been rewritten, now allows for Morris, now 25, to get life in prison with the provision that his case will be reviewed in 20 years.

Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters recounted the brutality of both crimes.

It started in 2007, when Morris, then 15, barged into a Clair-Mel day care center, held an elderly woman at knifepoint and raped her.

Just 10 months later, Morris, then 16, attacked Queena Vuong outside the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library. Vuong, an 18-year-old high school senior, was dragged behind the building, raped and nearly beaten to death. She remains blind and paralyzed.

"That was not an impetuous decision or an opportunistic crime," Peters said. "That was thoughtful, that was reasoned, and that was planned."

Though she wasn't in court, nine of Queena's friends and family members spoke for her.

"What kind of a thing, not even a human, could do such a horrible thing?" said her mother, Vanna Nguyen. "The answer over and over again is an evil, evil person. . . . I have come to accept our situation, but I will never accept letting this person go free."

Her sister, Anna Donato, asked Morris how many steps he has taken since 2008, how many meals he has consumed, how many books he has read.

"For my sister, the answer would be none," she said.

She recalled seeing Queena in the hospital, her face swollen, bones broken, asking — with her last words before her injuries silenced her — if they had caught her attacker.

"Our whole community has been victimized by your crime," Donato said. "We do not accept excuses and we do not feel sorry for those who rape and assault innocent people."

Defense attorneys, while acknowledging the horror of Morris' crimes, said a life sentence would be a mistake.

"I can honestly say, Mr. Morris has shown tremendous remorse in this case," said attorney Maria Pavlidis. "It's obvious to me sitting next to him."

That, doctors said, is an indicator that Morris could be rehabilitated.

Berney Wilkinson, who examined Morris before his first sentence and again more recently, said Morris lived in fear of his stepfather, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Steve White, and told of abusive punishments, including beatings that left scars on his body, the expert said.

Wilkinson related one memory Morris recalled, in which his stepfather, as punishment for doing poorly in school, broke all the boy's Christmas presents in front of him.

The abuse was compounded by the fact that Morris' mother, Lisa Stevens, did little to stop the punishments, according to testimony.

White could not be reached for comment Thursday. He has previously declined to discuss his relationship with Morris or Morris' mother.

At one point, Morris was removed from his home by the Department of Children and Families. Morris also told the doctor about two incidents of sexual abuse he endured at the hands of people he knew, one a man, the other a woman.

Morris, who sat with his head bowed for much of the hearing, appeared to become emotional as doctors spoke of the abuse.

All of the experiences made Morris feel as though he lacked power and control in his life, said James Garbarino, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago. It was what motivated Morris to exert power and control over his victims.

"I think Kendrick shows a recognition of the crimes he committed to the point that it's hard for him to look at it," Garbarino said.

It was a far cry from the cold, indifferent youth from nearly a decade ago, the psychologist said.

The doctors noted that he had only three disciplinary reports early in his incarceration — for fighting, damaging a library book and possessing tattoo equipment. Ever since, he has stayed out of serious trouble.

None of his misbehavior was sexual in nature, the doctors said.

His IQ was measured at 114, above average. He obtained a high school diploma in prison. He is a voracious reader, and uses the stories of writers like Nicholas Sparks to think about his own life and behavior, according to testimony.

Garbarino opined that in his experience, it is impossible to assess whether juveniles are capable of rehabilitation until they are in at least their mid-30s.

Morris, he said, already shows promise.

Peters, the assistant state attorney, said the doctors "minimized" what Morris had done. They also never tried to assess his sexual proclivities.

"To them," she said, "facts don't matter."

Tharpe said he will pronounce a new sentence March 9.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

 
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