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Famed Miami judge 'Maximum' Morphonios dies

Ellen Morphonios, who prosecuted rock 'n' roll legend Jim Morrison, was 73. Respected by colleagues and criminals alike, she earned her nickname by sentencing rapists and robbers to 1,000 years or more.

©Associated Press

December 24, 2002


MIAMI -- Judge Ellen "Maximum" Morphonios, who prosecuted rock star Jim Morrison and tried football player Eugene "Mercury" Morris, died of stomach cancer Sunday. She was 73.

Morphonios, who got her nickname for the 1,000-year sentences she gave robbers and rapists, was known for her idiosyncrasies: decorating her chambers in lavender; bringing her diaper-clad chimpanzee, Toto, to work; packing a pistol under her judicial robe; and moonlighting as "Lady Ellen," a talk radio personality.

"It's just not like her to die," said Anne Cates, a former assistant. "She was always a fighter."

Morphonios -- who was once profiled by 60 Minutes and People magazine -- was remembered for her work ethic, love of justice and mental prowess. A former beauty queen, she went to law school without earning an undergraduate degree by passing a test.

"Even the criminals had a lot of respect -- they nicknamed her "Time Machine" because they knew if they went before her and were found guilty, they were going to do a lot of time," said Lloyd Hough, a retired Miami-Dade County police detective.

Before becoming a judge, Morphonios prosecuted Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors, after he was accused of exposing himself before 10,000 people at a 1969 Miami concert. He was convicted the next year of indecent exposure and use of profanity, but was acquitted of lewdness and public drunkenness. The guilty verdicts were appealed, but Morrison died in 1971 before the case was resolved.

She was elected a judge in 1971. She presided over Morris' 1982 cocaine trafficking trial and sentenced the former Miami Dolphin star to 20 years. He served four before being granted a new trial, then pleaded no contest to a reduced charge. Morphonios sentenced him to time already served.

Morphonios sentenced one robber to 1,197 years in prison after he urinated on the courtroom floor. She made him leave without his pants.

When another defendant's mother began wailing and passed out on the floor, Morphonios continued with her business.

"Next defendant," she said. "Step forward. Step over the body."

In the early 1990s, she published her autobiography, Maximum Morphonios: The Life and Times of America's Toughest Judge.

Morphonios first retired in 1991 amid Operation Court Broom, a judicial corruption investigation. She was investigated for taking bribes but was never charged. Three colleagues were convicted.

In 1997 she returned as a part-time judge, but she retired months later after a state board questioned why she had not reported an alleged bribe attempt.

"They would have loved to have nailed her if they could, but they couldn't," said former Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan. "She would have been the prize catch. I used to sit there in court in awe of her. She'd show up armed for bear. She was the best."

Divorced three times, Morphonios is survived by two sons. Burial will be near her hometown of Ponzer, N.C.

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