Maximum Morph, the 1 000-year sentencer

The season for quizzes is over. But try this. What was Jim Morrison convicted for in March 1969? Easy. Waving his “snake” in front of 13 000 fans (and one lucky photographer) at a Miami pop concert (“D’ya wanna see my cock?” They did.)

Why did the Lizard King do this criminal thing? Even easier: he was pissed (English meaning) and he was pissed (American meaning) because the group had been royally screwed by the Florida promoter.

Who successfully prosecuted the lewd songster? Difficult, for all but Doors-bores. Ellen Morphonios.

Judge Ellen “Maximum” Morphonios passed away on December 23, aged 73. “It’s just not like her to die,” said one of her aides. Nor, in a sense, will she.

She is immortalised as the woman (there weren’t many of them) who went to war against Morrison’s penis and her (nick)name will live for ever, thanks to Elmore Leonard’s classic, Maximum Bob, which came out in the same year — 1991 — as her autobiography (Maximum Morphonios).

Maximum Morph turned her state’s court procedures into something between a blood sport and stand-up comedy. She outdid Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry — or any of those virtuosi of the “Florida wacko” school.

Her fact was wackier than their fiction. She got her big break with the Morrison case and went on to make her reputation with the most grotesquely savage sentences since Draco (the ancient Athenian lawman who inspired the word draconian).

It may not have been like Maximum Morph to die, but it certainly was for those unlucky to stand in the dock before her. She fried so many she should have had a neon counter clicking over her bench, like McDonald’s.

She kept a toy electric chair in her chambers along with Toto, her pet chimp (he always wore nappies when he came to the court house). A cute little dog would have been, you know, so “Dorothy”.

The 1 000-year sentence was her speciality — especially for rapists and robbers. Among the criminal fraternity, who dreaded drawing her as presiding judge, she was known as the “Time Machine”.

One spunky fellow, on being sentenced to 1 197 years for some petty armed robberies, made his indignation felt by urinating on the courtroom floor. She had the court marshals remove his trousers and he went down to see out the next millennium in his undies. He was lucky she didn’t make him wear nappies, like Toto.

When another defendant’s mother passed out before the bench, having made a heart-breaking plea for clemency, after her boy drew the routine 1000, Maximum Morph coolly instructed: “Next defendant. Step forward. Step over the body.” Justice delayed is justice denied.

Despite the brutality of her sentencing Morphonios had “fragrance”. She was a former model and beauty queen. She decorated her chambers in lavender — her favourite colour (her outrageous sentences were always signed in ink of that colour). She moonlighted as a coy talk-radio hostess — “Lady Ellen”.

Morphonios’s career is — like those of Erin Brockovich or Colin Powell — an “only in America” thing. She was born dirt-poor and brought up in a one-room shack. She did not go to university, but had a superb brain on her. In later life she was elected to Mensa — how many local judges would qualify?

She began working life as a secretary. Then she “modelled”. God knows what sexual humiliations that entailed — her victims from the bench, one recalls, were invariably men. Broken marriage, two kids. She got into law school on brains alone. They waived the normal requirement of an undergraduate degree. She worked by day, attended classes by night.

Alas, her career ended unhappily. “Operation Court Broom”, in 1991, turned up evidence of bribery. She retired, gracefully, in a cloud of lavender. She returned briefly to the bench in 1997; but again allegations of being on the take forced another retirement. Maximum Morphonios got off with the minimum.

That’s showbiz. Or Florida justice. Same thing. — Â



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