Killer of York youth counselor to serve at least 26 more years in prison
Dwayne Morningwake was just 15 years old when he and three others murdered a youth counselor inside the Children's Home of York 29 years ago.
He's been locked up since. And on Friday, Oct. 6, presiding Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock ruled Morningwake must spend at least 26 more years in prison before he's eligible for parole.
Defense attorney Kevin Hoffman said his client had hoped for a shorter sentence but is "happy to have a doorway to release."
"He recognize the seriousness of the crime, understands the pain the family went through and knows the steps he needs to take to get out of prison," Hoffman said.
It was a brutal attack, Trebilcock said, during which Kwame Beatty was stabbed at least 20 times by 25-year-old drug dealer Cornell Mitchell and teen Miguel Yoder as Morningwake held him down. A fourth teen, Michael Lehman, stood guard in another area of the home, armed with a knife.
Robbed, too: The foursome then stole Beatty's cash, car and cigarettes.
The three teens were runaways from the home who sneaked back into it on June 20, 1988, to kill Beatty at Mitchell's direction.
Mitchell was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death but died in prison of AIDS-related complications in 1991. He was 25 when Beatty was murdered and testified he met the three group-home residents after they ran away and he recruited them to sell crack cocaine for him.
Yoder, who was 17 at the time of the attack, pleaded guilty as an adult to third-degree murder, robbery and other charges and was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
Both Morningwake, now 45, and Lehman, now 44, were tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Lehman was 14 at the time of the murder.
Supreme Court ruling: But the two men's punishments were called into question in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to automatically sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole. A life sentence can still be handed down to a juvenile, SCOTUS ruled, but it cannot be an automatic sentence.
In Pennsylvania, people convicted of first- and second-degree murder receive automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Juveniles automatically sentenced to life in prison, including Lehman and Morningwake, are entitled to resentencing hearings. Lehman has already been resentenced to 30 years to life and remains in prison.
There are 11 such "juvenile lifers" in York County and about 460 across the state.
Morningwake testified Friday, confirming Beatty was asleep in his room at the children's home when the attack happened.
Troubled youth: He said he was a chronic runaway who was escaping an alcoholic father given to bouts of domestic violence. He also said he himself was using drugs and alcohol and was committing burglaries as a teen.
He had no grudge against Beatty, he said. But he was a follower, according to mental-health experts and Morningwake himself, who said he followed "anybody who would show me attention."
He said he continued to rebel in prison, smoking marijuana, refusing to accept responsibility and even participating in a failed escape attempt with two other murderers.
But he started to "be my own man ... and accept responsibility" around 2010-11, he said. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the prison, got his GED, took vocational classes and is now a cook in prison, he said.
"I want an opportunity to show I'm a better man," Morningwake said. "I'm not that kid anymore. ... I'm sorry I took a life. I can't give it back."
Family spoke in court: Morningwake's mother, sister and brother-in-law all testified briefly, confirming they saw a maturation in him several years ago. They said he has expressed both remorse for the murder and the desire to be a productive member of society.
Ghana Redman, one of Beatty's sisters, told the judge that her brother worked three jobs and was helping troubled youth and children with special needs.
Beatty's death shattered their mother's faith in God and plunged the family into grief that continues today, she said.
"A life of promise was cut short," Redman said.
'Wisdom and mercy': Hoffman, the defense attorney, told the judge that society could continue to hand down "Old Testament" punishment when it comes to children.
"Or do we find that justice requires wisdom and mercy?" he asked. "Are we going to be better than our system used to be?"
Chief deputy prosecutor David Maisch noted Morningwake had a "longstanding set of antisocial behaviors" and asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 45 years to life.
"No murder is good, but this (one) is a special kind of sick," Maisch said.
In handing down his decision, Judge Trebilcock said he understands the teenage Morningwake was seeking the approval he didn't get at home from his father but noted that Morningwake could have chosen Beatty as a role model, rather than a drug dealer.
'Nagging concern': Trebilcock said the fact that Morningwake took more than two decades to begin to mature and accept responsibility for his crime gives him a "nagging concern" about releasing the man into society.
"What happens when the next charismatic leader comes along ... and showers the defendant with attention?" the judge wondered, noting that Morningwake has a pattern of victimizing others. "Community safety is a concern here."
He resentenced Morningwake to 46 years to life for first degree murder, plus nine to 18 years for robbery and burglary, making the defendant's minimum sentence 55 years. After that, it would be up to a parole board to determine when Morningwake should be released.
Escape case: Assuming he's paroled, he will then have to serve one to two years for escape in a Centre County case.
Maisch, the prosecutor, said he was pleased with the judge's ruling.
Asked about why Morningwake's updated sentence is 25 years longer than Lehman's, Maisch noted that the two men had different roles, are different people and went before different judges.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.