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Thursday, Aug 28, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Loss of officers a wound that never heals

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On Thursday afternoon, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor finally began to write the words she would repeat to the judge who will decide if Dontae Morris lives or dies.

Morris was convicted last year of shooting Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab to death in what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. A jury recommended the death penalty.

Castor was in court Friday morning in the penalty phase of Morris’ trial, and it was her time to present an impact statement to Circuit Judge William Fuente. In layman’s terms, it was her chance to say for the record how the murders affected her and the other officers in the Tampa Police Department.

Castor had put off writing the statement as long as possible. Every sentence, every word, brought back fresh feelings of old pain.

“The emergency room of Tampa General Hospital was filled with a sea of officers. These strong individuals, capable of handling anything, were openly weeping, as was the emergency room staff. I tried to console, but there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness. There was no making this right.”

“I’m a procrastinator by nature,” she told me later. “In this case, when you’re dredging up those memories, I was hesitant to do it.”

It took her about two hours to write the five-page statement.

“I read it over a couple of times,” she said. “I wanted to take the emotion out of it.”

She was not entirely successful. She spoke to the judge about the time she showed Curtis’ son the gym where his father used to work out.

“It was all I could do to contain my tears when Austin, the oldest at 9 years old, asked, “Was my dad the strongest officer in here?’ I assured him that he was.”

Officers go to work each day knowing there is a chance they won’t come home. Maybe only soldiers and first responders understand how that feels. When one of them doesn’t come home, it cuts out a piece of the community’s soul.

The wound never heals.

“I often say that in law enforcement you get to see things that no one gets to see, but you have to see things that no one should have to see.”

There is dash cam video of the murders. Castor has seen it, of course. The images and sounds find Castor at random times.

“It’s really when you least expect it,” she said. “It hits me with no anticipation that it’s coming. It will always stay with me.”

It likely will be weeks before Morris is sentenced. He is already doing life without parole for another murder, and the option here is another life term or execution. That’s the judge’s call.

“I don’t believe (Morris) has a conscience,” Castor said.

But there was a final part to her prepared statement, one she was not allowed to read in open court. She said it was OK to repeat it here.

“I will share with you that I believe in God and embrace most of the Bible’s teachings. But, I do question an ‘eye for an eye.’ I have seen too much in my 30 years of law enforcement to believe that there is any meaning or relief in that process.

“However, the actions of this defendant have altered that view. I can say that, in my humble opinion, if there was ever a case where the death penalty applied it is here and now.”

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