Morgan Leppert will be sentenced to life in prison.
BUNNELL — As reality set in, Morgan Leppert’s sobs echoed through a Flagler County courtroom Thursday afternoon.
The Putnam County teenager will receive an automatic and mandatory life prison sentence after a jury’s first-degree murder verdict. The self-described “redneck cowgirl” will be the youngest girl in Florida’s prison system. She also was convicted of robbery and burglary.
The jury of five men and one woman apparently didn’t buy her childlike appearance and claims that her adult boyfriend, Toby Lowry, directed the robbery and murder of a disabled Melrose man last year. At the time, Leppert was 15 and a runaway from her San Mateo home; Lowry was 22.
“The level of violence that she and Toby Lowry reached, that trumped her age,” Assistant State Attorney Chris France said after the verdict, reached in about 90 minutes.
James Thomas Stewart, 66, was beaten, stabbed, stomped and suffocated in his home after Leppert and Lowry showed up to steal his pickup truck so they could leave Florida. They were caught about a week later in Texas after an alert motorist recognized Leppert from a nationwide Amber Alert.
Circuit Judge Ed Hedstrom scheduled sentencing Sept. 29 in Palatka. The trial was held in Bunnell because of publicity in Putnam County.
Lowry already is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to first-degree murder. He agreed to testify against Leppert, but neither side called him during her four-day trial.
Leppert’s attorney, Christopher Smith, vowed to appeal on several grounds, including the admission of her taped statements to police and the jury having six instead of 12 members. He told Hedstrom he also plans to challenge whether a mandatory life sentence is constitutional for a juvenile, an effort to preserve that issue for appeal.
“I was hoping that they would look at her age and circumstances and realize that Mr. Lowry was totally in control of this situation,” Smith said afterward.
Smith called no witnesses but argued throughout the trial that Lowry ordered Leppert to case the house then return with him to rob Stewart and never let her out of his sight during their cross-country trip. He said Leppert’s immaturity and infatuation with Lowry left her vulnerable to the wiles of a man who already had spent time in prison for burglary.
Leppert’s the best example of why the law protects 15-year-old girls from adult men, Smith said.
“It is sad and tragic that Morgan hitched her star to him, and this was the man she thought she loved. But 15-year-old girls, I’m sorry to say, don’t really know what love is,” Smith told jurors.
“It’s not reasonable to expect a child of her age, her immaturity, her level of education ... to witness something like that and make the choice, 'I’m just going to walk away.’ ”
Jurors had the option to convict her of lesser homicides such as second- or third-degree murder or manslaughter. Smith said prosecutors proved third-degree murder, nothing more. He said Leppert had no intent to kill Stewart and inflicted no serious injuries when she hit him with an aluminum curtain rod.
But France told jurors even if that were true, she would still be guilty of felony first-degree murder because she was a principal participant in the burglary and robbery that led to Stewart’s murder. In fact, France contended, Leppert is guilty of premeditated murder because the plan revolved around her desire to run away and she did nothing to walk away or stop the attack.
“ 'I’d do anything to get out of Florida’ is what she said,” France argued, comparing the couple to Bonnie and Clyde. “Her desires, in her mind, have no consequence. ... She controlled everything.”
The prosecutor pointed out that Leppert convinced her mother to let Lowry move in and share her bed when she was 14. She dropped out of school after eighth grade. And when her mother found out Lowry’s age and record and threw him out, Leppert ran away with him.
“When did she ever do what she was told?” France wondered.
He said her waifish appearance and childlike behavior were an act she put on to get what she wanted.
Both Leppert’s family and Stewart’s family wept as the verdict was announced. Stewart’s relatives turned and thanked investigators. Both families declined interviews after court.
Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said the state’s youngest female inmate was born in November 1992. Leppert was born two months later.
The department houses young females declared youthful offenders in a special dorm at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, where they are segregated from the general population. Either the judge or the department can make the youthful offender determination, Plessinger said.