Teary and trembling, Morley is sentenced For aiding Jason Sweeney's murder, she got 17 1/2 to 35 years. His mother vowed to go to every parole hearing.

Posted: March 22, 2005

Justina Morley trembled and wept profusely yesterday as she was sentenced to 17 1/2 to 35 years in prison for luring 16-year-old Jason Sweeney to his death with the promise of sex.

While, in her lurid jailhouse letters, Morley reveled in Sweeney's murder, yesterday she asked for forgiveness.

"I would just like to apologize to everyone for what they've been through, but I would especially like to apologize to the Sweeneys and let them know I am sorry for what happened," said Morley, 17, clutching her manacled hands to her chest.

"I would do anything to switch places with their son."

She never turned to face Sweeney's parents as she spoke in sobs. The couple clenched their teeth as they listened.

Earlier, when given time to offer a victim impact statement, Sweeney's mother, Dawn, stared icily at Morley.

"I only have one thing to say and that is: I will see you at the parole hearing," she told the teen.

Dawn Sweeney later told reporters: "We'll be at every parole hearing there is - to protect society from her."

At the request of Morley's attorney, Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner recommended that Morley do her time at a minimum-security women's prison at Cambridge Springs, in northwestern Pennsylvania. The Department of Corrections will decide where she serves her time.

"Unlike the codefendants, Miss Morley will reenter society at some point. . . . She is in tremendous need of emotional, psychological and psychiatric treatment," Morley's attorney, William Brennan, told the judge.

Morley's first opportunity for release will be in December 2020, when she will be 32. She was 15 when her teenage accomplices beat Sweeney to death with a hatchet, a hammer and rocks in a vacant Fishtown lot on May 30, 2003.

Outside the courthouse yesterday, the Sweeneys told reporters that Morley's words and tears meant nothing to them.

"There was no apology," Dawn Sweeney said, noting that in a letter from jail, Morley talked about feigning tears while testifying in the case.

Morley pleaded guilty last year to third-degree murder in the brutal killing. It was part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. This month, she testified against her three accomplices.

Domenic Coia, 19, his brother Nicholas, 18, and Edward Batzig Jr., 18, were each convicted of first-degree murder and will be sentenced in May to life without parole. During their trial, Morley's violent and sexually graphic letters to the trio became central to the case.

In issuing the sentence yesterday, Lerner told Morley, "I have never seen a case in which the barbarism and depravity of which humans - especially young people - are capable of displaying . . . particularly against a young person whom they knew and considered their friend."

As Morley watched, the Coias and Batzig beat Sweeney's face and head beyond recognition for the $500 he earned working construction with his father. The four then engaged in a "group hug," bought drugs with money, and "partied beyond redemption," Domenic Coia told detectives.

Assuming Morley does not get into trouble while in prison, she must serve at least 17 1/2 years before she is eligible for parole. She will receive credit for time served in Philadelphia's jail since June 2003 arrest.

Paul Sweeney, Jason's father, told reporters that although he understood and supported prosecutors' decision to strike a plea bargain with Morley, he believed that she, too, deserves life in prison without parole.

In his remarks to Morley, Lerner seemed to agree. "One would hardly think that any sentence could possibly be long enough for you," he told the young woman.

Then, referring to Morley's decision to testify against her accomplices, he continued: "However, I want you to know that despite your conduct, despite what's in those letters and the additional pain they caused, the last thing that you did in this case was a good thing. I hope that you can take that with you. I hope that you can use that as, perhaps, the first building block."

Contact staff writer Jacqueline Soteropoulos at 215-854-4497 or jsoteropoulos@phillynews.com

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