Two years after reprieve, Tampa court orders man back to jail

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Dan Sullivan, Tampa Bay Times
·4 min read
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TAMPA — Kyle Moran, who for the last two years has worked to build a life after serving decades in prison for a murder he committed at 16, will have to return to jail, a judge said Tuesday morning.

Acting on instructions from an appeals court, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez imposed a 40-year sentence and gave Moran 45 days to get his affairs in order. He must turn himself in to the Orient Road Jail on April 7.

It was an outcome that struck some as unfair.

Moran, 43, served 24 years in prison for the 1994 shooting death of Manuel Huerta, 73. He was originally given a life sentence, but got out in 2019 on the wings of a series of U.S. and Florida Supreme Court opinions that changed the way the criminal justice system treats juvenile defendants.

Since his release, Moran completed a transitional program through Abe Brown Ministries and worked through classes at Ready4Work Hillsborough as he sought employment. For more than a year, he has worked for a company installing fire sprinklers in new buildings. He’s saved money for a home and wants to get married.

Now his future appears grim.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said after Tuesday’s hearing that he did not like the outcome, but emphasized that his office was bound by Florida law, which requires a 40-year minimum mandatory penalty for juveniles who commit murder.

“I don’t like the outcome or the law that requires it,” Warren said. “But the legislature gave no choice to prosecutors or judges in this situation, and I can’t close my eyes and ignore the law just because I disagree.”

The crime occurred on June 7, 1994. Moran and two teenage friends ran away from their Massachusetts hometown, ending up in Tampa. Wanting to go back north, but short of money and a car, they decided to commit a robbery. They forced their way into Huerta’s Palmetto Beach home.

Huerta, a retired Tampa bus driver who was preparing breakfast in his kitchen, confronted the teens with a knife. Moran pointed a .22 caliber rifle and demanded money and car keys. Huerta tapped the end of the gun with the knife. Moran shot him in the face.

Moran and his two co-defendants, Floyd LaFountain and Michael DuPuis, were charged with burglary, robbery and murder.

DuPuis made a plea deal and received a 20-year sentence. LaFountain and Moran both got life sentences.

In more recent years, though, brain science has shown that young people are less capable of appreciating consequences of their behavior. A series of Supreme Court rulings declared it unconstitutional to give life sentences to juveniles.

LaFountain was released in 2017, having served 22 years.

Moran had his own re-sentencing hearing a year later. Judge Fernandez heard testimony about childhood abuse and the circumstances that led Moran to the worst mistake he ever made. She heard testimony from a neuropsychologist who said that Moran was amenable to rehabilitation and posed no danger to society.

The victim’s son also testified, saying he wished for Moran to remain locked up.

“Murder is murder,” Bob Huerta said. “I want him to pay for it.”

Moran gave an emotional apology.

“I hurt a lot of people, and I’m so sorry from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “And I always will be for as long as I live.”

Judge Fernandez sentenced Moran to 24 years, time he had already served. He had to serve one more year for an escape conviction he received in 2003.

He was released in March 2019 and placed on 20 years probation.

The state appealed, arguing that because Moran was the one who committed the murder, the law required a 40-year sentence. The judge had found that law to be unconstitutional as it limited her ability to fashion an individualized sentence.

An appeals court disagreed, ordering Moran to be re-sentenced to 40 years. The decision became final last month.

Moran is close to having served 25 years, a point at which he will be able to request a review of his sentence. A judge could then convert the remainder to probation. But no one seems to know exactly how close Moran is to the 25-year mark, or how much more time he will spend incarcerated.

The victim’s son did not participate in Tuesday’s hearing.

In court, Moran told the judge he would comply with the order to return to jail.

“It won’t be a problem at all,” he said. “I have every intention of doing so.”

His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Deborah Goins, wrote in a court paper that Moran will immediately apply for a sentence review. The paper also stated that the defense will ask that Moran be granted a furlough from prison, pending the outcome of that review. It is unclear if such a request would be granted.

“He’s already proven himself to be rehabilitated,” his sister, Marriah Roberts, said through tears. “That is the point of the penal system. It’s like putting someone in the hospital after they’ve already healed.”