In Miami they call her Maximum Morphonios, with good reason. Dade County Circuit Court Judge Ellen J. Morphonios may be a 59-year-old grandmother and former beauty queen, but bad guys have learned to believe her when she says, “You do the crime, you do the time.” Good-humored and kindly off the bench, Morphonios shows no mercy on it, especially when sentencing criminals of a violent, vicious bent. In 18 years as a judge, she has sentenced more than a dozen men to death and scores more to lifetimes, and even multiple lifetimes, in prison. After sentencing one felon to 198 years—the maximum possible for his multiple counts of armed robbery and related offenses—she told him not to worry, he probably wouldn’t serve even half that time.
In her zeal for speedy trials, Morphonios has had some judgments reversed. But she has earned the respect of colleagues and adversaries alike. “She’s the toughest sentencing judge I’ve faced, but she’s also the fairest I’ve ever known,” says former Public Defender Carl Masztal. “In her Darth Vader robe, she’s God throwing thunderbolts. But I’ve never seen her send an innocent man to prison.”
Morphonios, who grew up poor in the Outer Banks region of North Carolina, first learned about the law by working as a legal secretary. Intrigued, adept and backed by her employers, she was accepted by the University of Miami Law School at 23, though she had never attended college. In addition to practicing law, Morphonios was a popular Miami radio talk show host in the ’60s and early ’70s, even after being elected to the circuit court in 1970. Thrice married and divorced, she is the subject of a William Morrow book-in-progress.
Courthouse legend has it that while sentencing a rapist to life, Morphonios lifted her judicial robes and said, “Get a look at these gams, pal, because they’re the last you’ll for a long, long time.”
Great story, but I swear I didn’t do that. I might have made a snide remark as he passed the bench. But I’d never lift my robe. That’s just not my style. Believe you me, if I had, I’d tell ya. I have no ulcers because I always say what I think is right and own up to it. That way I have no regrets or inner frustrations.
The way I look at it, criminals pick their career as we pick ours. Only they don’t work. They steal what we accumulate, killing us in the process. I have no patience for this. Crimes of violence bug the hell outta me. There’s no reason to hurt others, it’s contemptible, condemnable. They don’t have to break an old lady’s hip or kill a dog or mutilate a little girl. But criminals would just as soon kill ya as look at ya.
Some criminals repulse me. One man out on work release broke into a house, found a 12-year-old inside and tried to strangle her with a macramé cord. She could hardly talk, but she managed to find the phone and croak out the message that she needed help. I gave him 420 years. I’d have given him 800 if the law allowed it.
In another case, a woman testified that she thwarted a rapist by shooting him in the groin. I congratulated her on a nice shot.
I had this crazy guy in my court for armed robbery. He proceeded to take off his pants and stand up nude—no underwear—in my courtroom. There he is, bare-assed. I shook my head and told the jailer to haul his ass out. He said, “Judge, I need to put my pants back on first.” I said, “Boy, you walk bare-assed inside my courtroom, you’ll walk bare-assed out.” He’s doing 900 years.
Being a Dolphins fan, it was tough in 1982 when Mercury Morris, the running back, was before me for cocaine trafficking. I had to give him 20 years in prison—15 without parole. I felt I had to do it. I liked him, but he disappointed me by selling drugs. I looked down and scowled and said, “Sorry, Merc.” [The conviction was later overturned, and Morris served only 3½ years on a lesser drug charge.]
About 10 years ago I put a guy on trial for first-degree murder 24 days after he was arraigned. The jury found him guilty of cop killing, and I sentenced him to the electric chair. Three years later the state supreme court ordered a new trial because his counsel claimed he didn’t have enough time to adequately prepare his defense. He was convicted again, and that judge also sentenced him to death. I have no regrets about how rapidly I handled the case. He was guilty of murder and should die for it.
Of the 15 or so death convictions I’ve given out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, each one has been reversed. None of my criminals has died on death row. I firmly believe in the death penalty, especially for cop killers. And I’m hard on drug dealers. Crack is the worst epidemic in modern time, the most addictive poison there is. Compared with it, heroin and cocaine aren’t that bad. One shot of crack and you are addicted. But can you take the life of a 14-year-old for selling a nickel rock? No. That’s a different problem entirely.
I can be a good ol’ broad. I have cases of indecent exposure where the world won’t rattle if the guy doesn’t go to jail over it. So when a guy stands before me for dicky waving, I don’t always send him to jail. I take the common sense approach. Just like the day my bangs were hanging in my face during court. I grabbed a scissors and cut ’em off while counsel were reciting their cases.
I think I learned this simple problemsolving routine from my parents and from my upbringing in the boonies. We lived in a little house in Ponzer, N. C., with no running water or electricity. My daddy Wesley James was a farmer and a roofer. I was Daddy’s little girl till he died two years ago at age 90. That nearly did me in. My mama Lydia always spoke her mind. Ya didn’t ask Mama if she liked your dress if you weren’t prepared for her answer.
When I was 7 got a serious ear infection that kept me in bed for a year. It spread throughout my body into my kidneys. I remember the neighbors saying I would die and Mama nursing me and Daddy carrying me to see the daffodils blooming in the front yard.
To this day, about twice a year, when I want to recharge my batteries after long months of work, I drive up to our land in North Carolina. After three days there, I forget about rape, robbery and murder and concentrate on the price of soybeans, the number of deer roaming and the amount of rainfall to expect that season. A good childhood with loving parents stays with ya forever. It molded my whole existence.
We moved to Miami my senior year in high school. After graduation I went to work as a secretary for a lawyer at $25 for a 5½-day week. I didn’t know diddlysquat about the law. I thought “instrument” was a hammer. My boss taught me about deeds, mortgages and torts.
I looked pretty good in those days, I was put together well: 35-20-37. Sure, I wanted 35-inch hips, but let’s face it, I’m always going to have a fat ass. It didn’t seem to hurt then. I won several beauty contests, including the Coconut Harvest Maiden and the Mrs. South Florida pageants. I loved modeling. I loved being a sex object. What the hell is wrong with that? I couldn’t dance or sing, but I could talk my fool head off. It was good training for my talk show and for the bench.
These days I like to fish, crochet, read murder mysteries—real-life crime stories and novels—play with my two dogs and six cats, and shoot my seven guns and rifles. I’m damned good at it. I carry a 2 pistol on occasion. I’d prefer my rifle, but it’s difficult to hide under my clothes. I’m not afraid of these criminals. If they threaten me, I’ll tell them where to shove it.
I can see where a lot of judges burn out in this man-killer criminal division I’m in. The pressure is unbelievable. Once I asked to be taken out of the courtroom. I looked at two defendants and wanted to kill ’em. So I told myself, “It’s time for a rest. You’re freaked out, woman. It’s got to ya.”
I took one of my sons and drove home to North Carolina. Being home with my family somehow made everything look okay again.
Ten days later I came back and busted ass.