The Re-sentencing of Queena's Attacker

"Not many would ever wish to live in prison, but I have to wonder, if given the option to either live in prison or be crippled like his victim, would Kendrick trade places with Queena?"

Queena (2nd from left), Anna (Center Left), and Me (Center Right)- Fall 2005 

The significance of the day weighed heavily on my mind since the moment I heard that Queena’s attacker, Kendrick Morris, had been approved for a resentencing hearing. I’ve known Vanna, Queena, and Anna for the last 15 years. 15 years of birthdays, graduations, weddings, celebrations, heartbreaks, healing, progress, the trial, the original sentencing, bad news, good news, fundraisers, and the like.

     A trip to Clearwater to see the sunset- February 2010

Anna's Wedding Day, April 2016

A re-sentencing wasn’t something that I, or anyone who knows these remarkable women, wanted to see them live through again. Nearly six years of healing from the wounds of the trial and sentencing would be re-opened. Details of the most horrific night of Queena’s life would be re-lived. Having to be in the same room as the person who had inflicted an intangible amount of pain into your family’s life would be re-experienced. It’s not my definition of justice.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decided that sentences like the one Kendrick received are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, and that the opportunity for parole should be available for them. As a result of this ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust the victims and their families into living through each offense all over again.

The monumental day arrived with an array of emotions—sadness, anger, pensiveness, frustration, stress, and surprisingly, even a feeling of love. As a tangible way of showing support without having to utter a word, Vanna requested that we all wear pink for Queena.  We extended the request to anyone, regardless of if they knew Queena personally or not, to wear pink for Queena and to post pictures on Facebook with #QueenawearsPINK and #JoinQueena. As pictures began to flood onto Facebook, a wave of pink marched through the halls of the Hillsborough County Courthouse. We filled the hallway outside of Courtroom #15 and waited to be called in for the hearing to begin. Moments before the resentencing was to be underway we gathered around in a circle and we prayed. We asked for wisdom, peace and justice, for clarity of mind over States Attorneys Rita Peters and Aaron Hubbard, and ultimately for the Lord to have his hand over the proceedings. We concluded our prayer and filed into the courtroom, packing it out in shades of pink. I don’t know if Kendrick looked our way as he was ushered in by the Sheriff, but I’m sure if he did, he felt our unity and saw a visualization of our message of hope and love for Queena.

Praying before the re-sentencing 2/9/17

As court was called into session, the defense began by bringing up two expert witnesses that testified that they believed Kendrick was capable of being rehabilitated. As much as it hurt to hear the suggestion that Kendrick’s brain has the ability to recover, rewire, and rehabilitate from the life of abuse he lived through as well as the abuse he administered to his victims, I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying and see it as hope for Queena’s brain. There were many times they were speaking of Kendrick and I wanted to jump up and scream, “That’s great that he is rehabilitating so quickly! Would you like to come evaluate my friend and tell me what her prognosis for rehabilitation is? Perhaps, then, your opinion of whether or not he can truly be rehabilitated may change” Each witness was asked by the prosecution during cross examination if they had even bothered to look into the details of the brain injury inflicted on Queena, the details of the crimes, or even photos from the crimes. Both times there was a “No” that resounded so deeply into my soul that it felt like I was being cut by a knife. If they had seen the pictures, read the reports, seen videos of her now, could they so unwaveringly sit on the witness stand and declare that he could re-enter society with the very victims whose lives he stole?

At numerous moments throughout the day, I glanced over to Kendrick, trying to extrapolate any kind of emotion that could dictate potential inward feelings. During the defense witnesses' testimonies, I saw him wipe his eyes a few times during the descriptions of the abuse he lived through. As a mother of a little boy, my heart broke for Kendrick. Did he ever have anyone in his corner? All of the evidence given in the courtroom tells me that he was failed, time and time again, by those whom he held closest to his heart.

Queena, with my son, Ethan- January 2016

Regardless of the compassion I felt for him, his crimes can’t be excused. There are people that have been in far worse situations, with much less to their name, and more repetitive and severe forms of abuse that haven’t raped, strangled, threatened, and ripped away two women’s lives. Many times, I thought about how his life now compares in contrast to Queena’s life. Not many would ever wish to live in prison, but I have to wonder, if given the option to either live in prison or be crippled like his victim, would Kendrick trade places with Queena? I assume not. There were several times that the expert witnesses expressed Kendrick’s love of reading. If he were to trade places with Queena, he would never be able to read again. And that’s one of the more complex abilities he robbed from her. Swallowing, breathing, walking, eating, using the bathroom, showering, scratching an itch, being able to communicate when something hurts or you don’t feel well--- she can’t do any of these things or even ask for them to be done for her.

The defense rested their case and we recessed for lunch around 1:45, as we processed through some of the most difficult topics from the morning and geared up for what we knew would be an emotional afternoon. We reconvened in the courtroom at 3pm. One by one, friends, therapists, and family members pleaded with the judge to impose the maximum sentence on Kendrick-- life in prison. You see, in 2011, during the original sentencing, the judge could not impose a life sentence on Kendrick. There were laws that prohibited a juvenile from receiving a life sentence; however, the law has since changed and now allows juveniles to be sentenced to life with the provision that after a set period of time they would be permitted to have their sentence reviewed. I think for many, this may be the silver lining of having to re-open these wounds. In total, there were 14 different statements that were either read aloud into the court record or were submitted to the court. Each statement that was read was emotional and powerful. Of these statements, there is one that held the most weight—Vanna’s. During the original trial and sentencing she was unable to face her daughter’s attacker. She was concerned about not being able to make it through her statement due to emotions and her language barrier, so it was read on her behalf. But, for the first time since the attack, Vanna found her voice. She bravely walked to the witness stand, faced the judge, and calmly, clearly, and with great emotion read her statement.

Nine years ago, my world was changed forever. You see me now speaking calmly, but if you could see inside me, you would see a broken heart and a fragile network of nerves.
Imagine for one moment, that you received a call telling you that your vibrant, intelligent, beautiful, full of life, young child, with the brightest of futures in front of her, was viciously attacked and lucky to be alive. Then, when you think she will be okay, a series of unexpected seizures overwhelm her and renders her helpless.  As a result of the attack and seizures, you find out that the prognosis for her recovery is dim.
During this time you wonder, “Who would do such a horrible thing?” “What kind of creature, not even a human being, could do such a despicable thing?” “What would drive someone to commit such a heinous crime?” The answer over and over again is an evil, evil person. No matter what race; no matter if male or female; and no matter how old or how young - this person is someone who has no regard for what will happen to the other person he is attacking, he only cares about himself. 
When I found out who had done this to my daughter and that he had also raped a 62 year old woman, I knew this was an evil person. I am so glad they caught him, because you know he would do it again. If you set him free, you will be gambling with some other potential future victim’s life.
Each day of my life, I not only feel my own pain, but I feel the pain of my daughter, who will never recover. Our entire family and so many close friends feel the same pain. Queena fights and has made progress, and keeps trying and trying to get better because she has no other choice. We must keep our faith strong, so she can be strong too.
9 years ago this evil person administered a life sentence to my daughter. She can’t speak, she can’t walk, and she can’t eat without help. Do you know that her muscles still remember the attack? Every day she still struggles to swallow and breathe because he strangled her and cut off her oxygen during the attack.  The fear he created will always be there, in her memory. His life sentence is a piece of cake compared to hers. If you lessen his sentence, one day he will be free like you and me, while Queena will continue her life sentence until the end. Is that justice?
My faith says I should forgive him. I have come to accept our situation, but I will never accept letting this person go free...ever! If my daughter cannot get a re-sentencing, he shouldn’t either. He should stay in there for life, or until God says so. Judge Tharpe, on behalf of Queena and my family, I ask that you would consider giving Kendrick Morris a life sentence. Thank you. 

I can’t say that there was a dry eye in the room when Vanna walked down from the witness stand, but I can say that everyone’s hearts swelled with pride for her when she finished. The symbolism of what she overcame to be able to speak to the judge on behalf of her daughter, shows the strength she has instilled in both of her girls. I believe this is where Queena has gotten her fighting spirit, her determination, and her will. Vanna is an amazing individual.

Anna’s statement immediately followed her mother's.

Your Honor— It was almost 6 years ago that I first sat in this very seat. That was my first opportunity to tell Mr. Morris and the court, how the attack on my little sister had impacted my family. Now, here I am again. I would give anything in the world, anything at all, to be able to report that things have changed, that things are better now. But that would be a lie. The truth is, these last few years have been filled with fear, worthlessness, depression, hopelessness, sickness, anxiety, and exhaustion.
Mr. Morris, since the first sentencing, how many books have you read or shows have you watched? How many times have you brushed your teeth or put on a pair of clean underwear? How many times have you stretched out your arms and legs or reached to scratch an itch? How many steps have you taken? How many meals have you eaten? How many words have you said?
If my sister were to answer those questions, which she can’t, the answer would be zero. None.
In fact, she cannot even be here for the sentencing today, yet here you are. Why can’t she be here today? First of all, she would have to listen to the gruesome details of her rape and attack and re-live the horrifying moment when she lost her life. Then, who would she be able to confide in? How would she express her feelings to a therapist or even our mom, or me? How would she ask for answers to questions that have been burning in her mind?
She wouldn’t be able to. Her last words that were ever said, were to me, almost nine years ago when she lay in the hospital bed in the ER. She was beaten so badly, she was unrecognizable. Do you know how hard it is to see your little sister in that condition? The bones in her face were fractured and her teeth were knocked in. I used up almost a whole bottle of chamomile lotion on her body. She was covered in hundreds of ant bites all over her entire body, front and back, because you left her naked on top of ant hills to die.
She was so swollen she couldn’t even open her eyes. But when she finally managed to peep one eye open, she realized all she could see was darkness, a void. Those were her last words to me, the last time any human being has ever heard her speak. She slurred her words. She used up what energy was left in her to say every syllable. She could barely make her lips move. She said to me, “Why can’t I see? I am so itchy everywhere, can you scratch me? I cannot move. What happened to me?” I told her that a very bad person had attacked her. She then asked me, “Did they catch him?”
I told her that the police had found him. I then told her, what I now know will never come true. I told her that everything was going to be OK and that she would be back to normal in time for the prom.
She then asked me, “Am I safe? Are we safe?” I said, “Yes.”
And that was the last time I heard her little voice. What I am supposed to tell her tonight after the sentencing if Kendrick Morris’s sentence is reduced? She is waiting on me to come over. How can I tell her that she is safe? That we are safe?
She cannot be here herself to hear the sentence being read out loud. She is bound to a wheelchair and a diaper. Spending more than 3 hours sitting in a wet and dirty diaper will cause infections and sores. Also how would my mom feed her? Lift up her shirt in front of everyone so that she can pump liquids and crushed medicine down a tube stuck into her stomach?
If she were here, she wouldn’t even be able to see her attacker, because her vision has been gone for 8 years now. She would not even be able to look him in the eyes.
She would just be sitting here listening and screaming, crying out and tensing up every muscle in her face and body until her jaw pops and her hips are crushed from trying to explode through the seatbelt of her wheelchair. Unlike you and me, she has lost her ability to control her emotions and her anxiety. We can sit quietly and fake a smile, or refrain from yelling out by calming ourselves down. Queena does not have that luxury.
Like her body, her mind has also been severely damaged. She is trapped inside a body that she cannot control, and her mind replays the horrible scenes over and over again, and she will never be able to shut it off or vent to anyone about it. She has to live with the fact that she does not have much of a life, that her body is practically useless, and that our mom is dying a little every day inside and out. That, to me, is truly cruel and unusual punishment.
Almost nine years ago, you took my sister’s life from me. You took my mom’s life, too. I am left alone now. They have been replaced by two people I have never known before. It is like parts of the 18-year-old Queena that I knew have gone missing, have been downgraded to the physical abilities of a newborn with the cognitive functionality of a young child. Most likely her life span has been greatly reduced. Her body will start to shut down from the lack of activity and real food.
My mother is just a shell, walking around mindlessly having not showered in days or skipping two to three meals in a row. Her mind is completely consumed by thoughts of how she can bring the old Queena back. She has developed severe anxiety, obsessive compulsions, and has lost the ability to think about anybody but Queena, not even about herself. Her health has been noticeably declining. If she were to get very ill, I would be the one taking care of the both of them, side by side in hospital beds.
We have all been punished because of the crime you committed. I am a victim. My mom is a victim. Our whole community has been victimized by your crime. We have spent our days desperately trying to rise above, holding on to each other, rejoicing at any tiny evidence of progress, clinging on to every ounce of hope that Queena will get better and that justice will be served. It is only by the grace of God and the blood, sweat, and tears of the people that we have been able to consider some battles won.
Today is one of the biggest battles we will ever face; I will ever face. I am here to speak on behalf of my sister who has lost her voice and on behalf of the many other victims out there. We do not accept excuses, and we do not feel sorry those that have made decisions to rape and assault innocent people. No matter if young or old, it takes an adult-like mind to be able to come up with and execute such a horrific attack. Your Honor—I am asking that you please consider a life sentence for Kendrick Morris. We should never allow him the opportunity to ever hurt another person like my sister again.

The strength of these women inspire me. Since news of the resentencing has hit the media, I have seen multiple people in an outrage over the idea that Kendrick may receive a reduced sentence-- and understandably so. I have read through countless comments about how the money used to keep Kendrick comfortable in prison could be better allocated to Queena’s rehabilitation costs. I get it. If there was a way to deliver perfect justice, perhaps that would be it. It’s hard to not be angry about the lack of justice when it comes to the funds freely given to inmates vs. how their victims’ families have to fight for every penny it takes to keep them home, alive, fed, in therapy, etc. I don’t know what the perfect answer is, but I do know that Queena has incredible supporters. The courtroom, and Facebook, was packed with pink! We showed our love for her and that’s the biggest display of “we shall overcome” and “we will not be broken” that could ever have been delivered.

The defense talked frequently about Kendrick’s exploration into spirituality and that he is currently trying to determine what religion fits best for him. I don’t know if has access to a computer and the internet while in prison, but I want to close this post by speaking directly to him for a moment by the small chance that he may see this someday.

I hope you know how deeply you are loved by a Father in Heaven who sent His Son to die as an atonement for your sins. Yes, even the sins you committed against these two beautiful women will be forgiven by God if you accept His forgiveness. There is only one true way to repentance, healing, and rehabilitation from your sins. I want you to know that I don’t think of myself as any higher of a person because my sin doesn’t look like your sin; I too, have sinned and have fallen just as short of the glory of God as you have/will. However, every sin has a different consequence and even when you are forgiven, that doesn’t leave you outside of consequence. For this reason, I pray that you remain in prison for life; but don’t for one moment think that just because you may remain in prison for the rest of your earthly life, that God cannot use you for His glory and His purposes. You can still find a life of meaning, purpose, and hope, even in prison. I pray Jesus finds you in prison. I pray you find remorse, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and redemption on this side of Heaven. If God can use even me, He can use even you for His Glory. You are not outside of His grace or His love.  He is waiting for you to receive His forgiveness and to walk in relationship with Him.
Genesis 50:20 “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives”
Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

While it was disappointing to walk out of the courtroom without a decision, we are grateful that Judge Tharpe is taking time to review everything. We wouldn’t want him to make a rash decision one way or another and we are receiving this as an answer to our prayer that wisdom would preside over the ruling. Thank you for all who have supported Queena in this journey. Please know that every good thought, prayer, support of time, finances, or other means are vital to the family and friends that are near to Queena. We could not carry on without you.

 Judge Tharpe will be submitting a written sentence on March 9, 2017 at 8:30 am

We would like to thank Fox News, WTSP Channel 10, and the Tampa Bay Times for allowing us to use media captured while in the courtroom.

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