The judge sentences the man to life in prison without parole; he rules the fatal beating wasn't premeditated.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001
LARGO -- By the time Walter Morris walked into 2-year-old Dustin Gee's world, the toddler's life was already a living torment.
His mother, Kimberly Gee, admitted savagely beating him. She intentionally dumped him out of his stroller onto the ground. She burned the boy with cigarettes.
Then Morris moved into their home and battered him even harder, finally killing a boy who had known little joy.
On Thursday, a Pinellas judge spared Morris' life.
Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach rejected a jury's recommendation that Morris be executed for the 1997 beating death of Dustin and sentenced the 29-year-old to life in prison without parole.
Morris, who appeared to shake his head in disagreement as the judge recounted his deed, was emotionless as the sentence was imposed.
"The beating of Dustin resulting in his death by the defendant was inexcusable but was not planned or done with premeditation (and) came about as a result of his inability to control his temper," Beach said in sentencing him.
In deciding on life over death, Beach also noted that Dustin's mother had set a pattern of abuse long before Morris arrived on the scene.
"In this environment it was inevitable that severe injury to, or the death of, Dustin would be the ultimate result," Beach said.
No relatives of Morris or Dustin showed up for the sentencing. Gee is in jail awaiting trial on a manslaughter charge. She is accused of failing to stop the beating that led to her son's death.
She faces up to 30 years in prison.
During Morris' trial last year, Gee admitted abusing her son. She testified that Morris took over the discipline of the boy.
"He thought I was too easy on him," she said.
After convicting him of first-degree murder, a jury recommended by an 8-4 vote in July that Morris be sentenced to death.
Beach said he gave great weight to Morris' childhood of emotional and physical abuse at his own parents' hands.
"What is so puzzling," Beach said, "is that the defendant could have a loving, non-violent relationship with his son, David, and yet be so violent to Dustin."
Gee and her husband, Tim Gee, who is mentally handicapped, shared a Kenneth City apartment with Morris and his girlfriend after moving from Kansas.
Prosecutors Tim Hessinger, Kendall Davidson and Robin Drutman told jurors that on the night of Dec. 15, 1997, Morris sat down to watch professional wrestling on television.
Dustin became noisy and started acting up, blocking Morris' view of the TV.
Morris yelled at Dustin. When the boy continued being noisy, Morris threw water in his face and then put his hand over Dustin's mouth to quiet him.
Dustin continued to yell. So Morris, prosecutors said, struck him in the chest, knocking him to the floor, where the boy hit his head.
When Dustin got up, Morris knocked him onto the floor again.
Morris stepped on his head, kicked him in the stomach and shook him violently, snapping his head back and forth.
Finally, Morris poured hot sauce down the boy's throat.
Dustin began whimpering and became unconscious. Morris tried to resuscitate him, but Dustin died hours later.
Although the Gees witnessed the beating, Morris persuaded them to tell police Dustin was injured in a car accident.
He later told police he shook the boy once for misbehaving and that the boy slipped from his grasp onto the floor, injuring him.
Doctors counted 81 bruises on Dustin's battered body. He suffered a broken arm and clavicle and was killed by a brain hemorrhage.
Assistant Public Defenders Violet Assaid and Chris Helinger recounted to jurors the violence Kimberly Gee inflicted on her own son and told them her abuse led to the boy's death.
Gee, aside from beating Dustin, also neglected him by failing to wash and feed him properly.
She frequently slept until the afternoon and kept her son strapped to a car seat in the house so he wouldn't bother her as she watched afternoon soap operas.
Asked if her son was scared of her, Gee responded, "I don't think he was. I thought he loved me."