Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teen gets life in prison

By Kristin Chambers
Published: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 1:28 AM EDT

Emotions stirred as 16-year-old Morgan Amanda Leppert stood Tuesday before a brimming courtroom, awaiting her final sentence for the 2008 slaying of a handicapped Melrose man.

After hearing testimony from the family of 66-year-old James Stewart, who was murdered by Leppert and her boyfriend Toby Lowry in April 2008, Judge Edward Hedstrom sentenced Leppert to a life in prison without parole - the highest punishment her age allowed.

She additionally received two counts of life in prison concurrent with the murder charge for burglary with assault or battery and robbery with a deadly weapon.

Defense attorney Christopher Smith argued that life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment, and should not be an option for a child under 16.

"She was not the perpetrator of the homicide, she was a 15-year-old girl acting under the influence of a 22-year-old man," Smith said. "She basically is a protected person under the statutes of Florida as a child, and to place her in prison for life without any opportunities redeem herself, receive treatment, proof - that concerns me."

After a week-long trial in August, a six-member jury convicted Leppert of first-degree murder for the slaying of Stewart, who was found stabbed, beaten and suffocated in his home.

Lowry, who faces life in prison for the slaying, was 22 when the crime was committed and was Leppert's boyfriend, reportedly against her parents' will.

The two were living in the woods behind Stewart's home after Leppert, who was 15, ran away to be with Lowry.

According to police reports, she obtained entrance to Stewart's home after asking the man to use his phone to call her mother. After casing the area, the couple returned later that night to steal Stewart's truck.

Stewart, who had been born with no hands and was hearing impaired, was found more than a week later by sheriff's deputies after family members had reported they had not heard from him.

Just days after the slaying occurred, Leppert and Lowry were found panhandling on the side of an interstate highway in Texas while on their way to California.

Lowry pleaded guilty in January to escape the death penalty.

Emotional testimony was heard Tuesday from the victim's family, who spoke of the Stewart's determination to overcome his disability.

"Every night when I go to sleep I pray that when I wake up this will all be a bizarre nightmare," Mike Stewart, the victim's brother, said with tears in his eyes.

He affectionately picked up a tennis racquet that had been modified for his brother, complete with a wrist strap, which served to substitute for his hand.

"The most important things I learned from my brother were determination, patience and never to accept the words no and can't."

David Stewart, the victim's nephew, stood before the court to express his pain.

"He was an inspiration to me and everyone that met him, except for the people that murdered him," Stewart said. "He was stolen away from us by two animals with no regard for human life."

Sheriff Jeff Hardy and State Attorney R.J. Larizza were present during the sentencing.

"I've been following this case for months, and I wanted to see closure for the family, and they got it today," Hardy said. "I know this will never completely go away for them, but I just thought it was important to be here for the family. It's nice to see justice served."

Leppert was offered a chance to speak before the judge, but declined at the advice of her attorney.

Smith said he has filed an appeal in hope that she will receive a new trial or possible reversal of conviction.

"The main grounds have to do with her pretrial statements and the fact that he only allowed her to have six jurors for a capital case," Smith said. "There's some conflict in the case law on that, the Florida Supreme Court has not ruled on it yet."

Smith also is challenging the admission of Leppert's interview with detectives during the trial, which audibly portrayed her role in the murder.

Leppert is now the youngest female in the Florida Department of Corrections.

As a minor, she cannot receive the death penalty.