TAMPA — The people who know Kyle Moran best say he has already paid a heavy price for the worst mistake he ever made.
A quarter-century ago, when he 16, Moran shot and killed Manuel Huerta in a botched robbery in Huerta’s Palmetto Beach home.
Moran spent more than two decades of a life sentence in state prison before brain science led to changing attitudes about how the criminal justice system treats juveniles.
Three years ago, a judge decided he’d done enough time. Moran emerged into a world he has largely never known, learning to drive, pay bills, use a cell phone and find work. He’s had a job for more than a year installing fire sprinklers in new buildings. He’s saved money for a home and wants to get married.
But now, he might have to go back to prison. It could happen as soon as his next court date, set for Tuesday.
The office of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who has been inclined toward mercy in some cases, wants a 40-year sentence for Moran, the mandatory minimum for juveniles convicted of murder.
Huerta’s son has always opposed Moran’s release.
“I lost my father to that man’s hand right there,” Bob Huerta said in a 2018 court hearing.
“Murder is murder. I want him to pay for it.”
The crime happened in June 1994. Moran and two teenage friends, Floyd LaFountain and Michael DuPuis, ran away from their Massachusetts hometown. They first went to Vermont and Maine, where they committed burglaries and stole guns, according to news accounts. They then headed south and ended up in Tampa.
After a few days, they were short of money and a car, and they wanted to go back north. Amid swigs of peach schnapps and beer, they decided to commit a robbery.
On the morning of June 7, 1994, they broke into Manuel Huerta’s home.
Huerta, 73, was a retired bus driver for Tampa’s transit system. He also was a carpenter, who earned extra money working on houses. He was divorced with two adult sons, two grandchildren and had just become a great-grandfather.
He had been peeling vegetables for breakfast in his kitchen. He confronted the teens with a knife.
“What are you doing in my house?” he asked.
Moran pointed a .22 rifle and demanded money and car keys. Huerta tapped the end of the weapon with the knife. Moran pulled the trigger and shot Huerta in his face.
When police arrived, the teens hid in an attic, but they later gave up. All three were charged with burglary, robbery and murder.
Huerta’s family wanted the death penalty. For a short while, the state sought capital punishment for Moran, but it later backed away, citing evidence of his troubled childhood.
DuPuis accepted a 20-year sentence. LaFountain and Moran both got life in prison.
All of this happened more than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court would reshape the way the criminal justice system treats juveniles.
Noting brain science that shows young people are less capable of appreciating the consequences of their behavior, the high court found that life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. This ultimately led states, including Florida, to change their juvenile sentencing laws. It also led to new sentencing hearings in scores of old cases.
LaFountain was released in 2017, having served 22 years.
A year later, Moran returned to a Tampa courtroom for his re-sentencing hearing.
Over two days, a judge heard testimony from his family and a neuropsychologist.
They told of a boy who grew up poor, whose mother struggled with mental illness, whose male figures were his mother’s violently abusive boyfriends. As a teen, he sought escape through drinking and began getting in trouble.
The neuropsychologist opined that Moran was amenable to rehabilitation and posed no danger to society.
The judge heard from Bob Huerta, the victim’s son, who was unequivocal in his feelings.
“I want him to serve the rest of his time in jail, whatever he’s got left to live,” he said. “At least he’s still sucking air. ”
The judge also heard from Moran. He spoke of the difficulty of going to prison so young, how one time he learned that fellow prisoners had targeted him for rape. He escaped to the safety of solitary confinement by mouthing off to a corrections officer, he said. It was a tactic he would repeat, he said, to get moved out of danger.
In 2003, while awaiting a court hearing in the Orient Road Jail, he tried to escape. He climbed a rope that other inmates had fashioned from bedsheets to get atop a light fixture in a recreation yard and tried to undo fasteners in a chain-link fence. He was convicted of attempting to escape and caught an additional one-year sentence.
He spoke of hopelessness, regret and sorrow for the pain he caused Huerta’s family.
“I hurt a lot of people, and I’m so sorry from the bottom of my heart,” he said through tears. “And I always will be for as long as I live.”
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez re-sentenced Moran in March 2018 to time served, which amounted to 24 years.
Prosecutors objected. They argued that state law requires a 40-year minimum mandatory sentence in cases where the defendant committed a homicide. The judge found that to be unconstitutional, as it limited her ability to fashion an individualized sentence.
The state appealed. Moran served one more year due to the escape charge, then was freed. He is serving a 20-year probation.
In his last year locked up, Moran took an electrician’s course and another class to learn desktop publishing.
When he was released, he got help from Abe Brown Ministries, an organization that provides housing and assistance to former prisoners. He also enrolled in Ready4Work Hillsborough, a program that helps former prisoners find employment. They put him through a four-week career development class.
While looking for work, he volunteered. He helped prepare meals for the homeless. He participated in a “pedal power” event, building bicycles for people who struggle to afford transportation.
He got a short-term job laying bricks and another painting buildings and another installing fences, he said. Then he found one with a company that installs sprinklers in new buildings.
He works six-day weeks, he said. He arrives at the job site before sunrise. He wears a Boston Bruins cap beneath a hard hat. He learned to speak Spanish through an app, he said, and converses with near fluency with Spanish-speaking co-workers. At the end of his long days, he returns to his sister’s home, where he has stayed since he left the transitional living program.
On days off, he likes to spend time with his sister and his nephews. They ride bikes on the Pinellas trail. They go to the beach. They play video games.
He tells the kids not to make the mistakes he did.
He says he’s saved money for a down payment on a house. He plans to marry his fiancé, a woman from Wisconsin, whom he came to know through letters and visits while he was in prison.
But it’s all on hold.
An appeals court sided with the state and ordered that Moran again be re-sentenced. Moran appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, but justices declined to take the case, effectively upholding the ruling.
Now, Moran faces the possibility of an imminent return to prison. For how long, is uncertain.
Florida law mandates that juveniles with lengthy sentences should have cases reviewed once they have served 25 years. In its appeals, the state noted that Moran is close to the 25-year mark.
After that, a judge could convert his sentence to probation. But there is no guarantee.
Warren, the Hillsborough state attorney, has in the past spoken of treating cases “not as a person to be prosecuted, but a problem to be solved.” But in this case, he said the longer sentence should apply.
“The law is clear that when you intentionally commit first-degree murder, you receive a minimum 40-year sentence,” he said in a statement. “Our role is to stand up for victims and enforce the law consistently, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The situation puzzles those who know Moran.
“This guy was a model client,” said Pastor Clyde Hammond, the senior case manager for Ready4Work Hillsborough and the coordinator for the Abe Brown Ministries Transitional Living Program. “Believe me, if I can use him as an example for other clients, he would be the perfect guy.”
Marriah Roberts understands why some people feel her brother deserves to go back. But she thinks they would have a different opinion if they could spend time with him.
“He’ll never tell you he didn’t deserve to be in prison,” she said. “No one is saying (that).”
But the man he’s become is a distant memory of the kid he once was, she said. “He’s the perfect picture of rehabilitation, and yet it doesn’t mean anything.”
Moran’s wish is for finality.
“Whatever they decide,” he said, “I will accept it.”