By Tim Elfrink
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.
Suddenly the door opened. Amy walked in. Morris began to speak — then he noticed a young man behind her. “What is this?” he asked, rising from the couch.
“Dad, he’s got a gun,” Amy said. Pinacle pointed it at Morris and asked for his VCR. Then he demanded his wallet. He’s going to shoot us both, and when my wife wakes up, he’ll shoot her too, Morris thought.
Instead, Pinacle grabbed the VCR and ran. The teens left.
Amy begged her father not to call the police and finally told him what Pinacle and Grant had done to her. “We were all incredibly scared,” says Sherry Harper, Amy’s best friend. “Dewayne threatened to kill her, to kill her dad. She ended up spending weeks at our house she was so terrified.”
A break in the case came three months later, after Morris obtained videotapes from the ATM at Publix and gave them to police. Someone from the neighborhood recognized Pinacle, and the pair was arrested August 9. Morris and his daughter picked Pinacle and Grant’s mug shots.
On November 25, 1991, a jury convicted the two men of ten felonies after listening to Amy’s wrenching testimony. Judge Fredricka Smith sentenced each to eight life sentences. Through it all, Pinacle sat stone-faced. “He showed zero remorse,” Morris says. “He was just… cold.”
Amy spent years in therapy but eventually graduated from UM with a master’s degree. Morris and his wife stayed in their home for another four years before they picked up and moved to a quiet retirement community in Sarasota.
But in the late ’90s, a movement began to reconsider life sentences without parole for juveniles. By then, only the United States and Somalia had refused to sign an international treaty banning the practice. And a slew of terrible cases marred the public’s faith in the punishment.
The most important case was in Pensacola, a year before Pinacle’s crime. A 13-year-old named Joe Sullivan was convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman, and a judge sentenced him to life. After the trial, his defense attorney was disbarred and the judge has been accused of botching the sentence.
The Supreme Court earlier this month took up the case. After banning the death penalty for young offenders last year, the court might now do the same for juvenile life sentences — at least when no murder is involved. “Every state recognizes the difference between an adult and a minor,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during argument. “The teenager can’t drink, can’t drive, can’t marry. There are many [legal] limitations on children because they are children.”
Change is also brewing on the legislative front. Last year, Michael Weinstein, a freshman Republican state representative from outside Jacksonville, introduced a bill in Tallahassee that would give age 15-and-under prisoners a chance to get out of jail early. Weinstein is a former prosecutor who works as executive director of the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville.
“If we really believe in the idea of rehabilitation, this is the place to start,” Weinstein says. “If we can’t rehabilitate prisoners who were 15 and under at the time of their crime, we can’t rehabilitate anyone.”
Weinstein’s bill would require defendants to have had no prior violent record, to be under age 16 at the time of their crime, to earn a GED in prison, and to have a clean record behind bars.
Pinacle seems to meet all of those criteria. In several appeals of his sentence — the most recent in 2007 — he has pointed to his progress behind bars. In fastidious penmanship, he writes he earned a GED and petitioned a judge to consider the “progress and changes that has occurred in my life since my incarceration at age 16.”
But Amy’s family and friends say releasing Pinacle would victimize them all over again. “His rights can’t supercede the rights of the innocent victims,” says Sherry Harper, who now works as a psychotherapist in Texas. “None of us would feel safe knowing that he’s out on the streets again.”
Morris, sitting in his neat peach-painted condo with a golf course out back, says his family is still paying for Pinacle’s crimes. Amy now has her own family and a life outside Florida. But that would change if Pinacle left prison.
“As bad as that night was, it went away eventually,” he says, staring into the distance. “Now to talk about letting him out… it’s terrifying.”