CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Michael Scott Norris, the escaped prisoner who killed two workmen at a St. Petersburg home during a botched burglary last year, pleaded guilty to murder today and was sentenced to life in prison.
Initially, prosecutors wanted Norris, 36, to be sentenced to death. But Norris's attorneys a few weeks ago said he would plead guilty as long as he received a life sentence.
Prosecutors accepted the deal, on the condition Norris be sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
One reason prosecutors accepted the deal was that Norris's attorneys made the offer so early in the proceedings, Bartlett said.
Norris was arrested in early October, a few days after he fatally shot Bruce Johnson, 51, and Arthur Regula, 36, and prosecutors and defense attorneys hadn't even begun taking depositions.
Concluding the case early saves the criminal justice system money and gives a sense of closure to the victims' family members, who were OK with the plea deal, Bartlett said.
"There's something to be said for a guy who stands there and says, 'I did it,'" Bartlett said.
"He'll die in prison."
On Sept. 30, Johnson, of St. Petersburg, and Regula, of Hudson, were renovating a house at 2635 Fourth Ave. N. when Norris showed up and shot both men. Bartlett believes Johnson was shot first while Regula was out back using a tile saw. Norris then set the house on fire.
Earlier that day, Norris left the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center, where he was in a work-release program. Hours later, several witnesses saw Norris leave a St. Petersburg hotel, where he stole a Glock semi-automatic handgun.
Investigators believe Norris then went to the nearby Kenwood home Johnson and Regula were renovating and killed them during a burglary. After setting fire to the house, he left in a Ford F-150 pickup that belonged to one of the men.
The F-150 was abandoned and set on fire near the intersection of Columbus Drive and MacDill Avenue in Tampa.
The strength of the case against Norris had nothing to do with the plea, the prosecutor said. The evidence against him was substantial. For one, he had left his backpack behind at the burning house, and his state Department of Corrections identification was inside the backpack.
Norris was also captured on video driving the stolen truck, and he gave the handgun used in the slayings to his girlfriend, said Maj. Mike Kovacsev of the St. Petersburg Police Department. A ballistics test matched Norris to the gun, and eyewitnesses helped investigators piece together his one-day crime spree.
"We had him dead to rights," Kovacsev said. "He has no defense."
Norris pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and one count each of arson and armed burglary. The two back-to-back life sentences are for the homicides, but he was also sentenced to life for the burglary and 30 years for the arson.
Norris' criminal history was substantial, with 50 to 60 prior convictions, Bartlett said. Norris had been a prisoner since 2004 after being sentenced for multiple felonies, including armed burglaries in Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties between 2001 and 2003.
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