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Thursday, Jul 24, 2014
Crime & Courts

Defense: Dontae Morris unclear about fighting death sentence

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TAMPA — As his attorneys prepare for his upcoming trial in the slayings of two Tampa police officers, Dontae Morris is fighting efforts to defend him against a possible death sentence.

This could leave Morris’ defense team, in essence, sitting on its hands as prosecutors tell jurors the reasons they should recommend a death sentence.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Nov. 4 in Orlando in preparation for a trial in Tampa the following week. Morris is charged with murder in deaths of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on June 29, 2010,

If a jury convicts Morris, a second hearing will center on whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. During that phase, the prosecution presents evidence of aggravating factors, or aspects of the crime and Morris that weigh in favor of death. Typically, the defense presents mitigating evidence, or aspects of the case and Morris that weigh in favor of life.

Morris’ lawyers say he has instructed them that if he is convicted of murder, they are not to present any mitigation evidence and not to challenge the prosecution’s aggravating factors.

In recent meetings with a new lawyer, Morris has “ambiguously” agreed to allow some defense presentation during the penalty phase of the trial, but because he has been unclear, his lawyers are unable to prepare, according to the defense court motion.

Lawyers met Friday with Circuit Judge William Fuente, and the defense, appearing by phone, asked the judge to schedule a hearing to talk with Morris about his plans.

“You need to get a decision from him as to which way we’re going to proceed because we’re paralyzed at this point,” attorney Byron Hileman told Fuente.

Fuente said he would have Morris brought to court next Friday.

According to the defense motion, Morris told his lawyers not to present evidence regarding “his character, background and life that would mitigate against the imposition of the death penalty. He does not want his attomeys to present mitigating evidence in any sentencing proceeding, and he wants to waive his right to present documents, witnesses or any form of evidence in mitigation against the imposition of the death penalty.”

Morris knows that his sister, brother, mother, grandmother and others could offer mitigating evidence, and that his attorneys have experts, including a behavioral psychologist, neuropsychologist and a psychiatrist who could testify on his behalf, according to the motion.

“Mr. Morris has several times indicated that he does not want to allow us to present mitigation or argument at penalty phase, in the event that becomes necessary in this case,” the motion states. “Mr. Morris indicated that he did not want family members to present evidence of mitigation. Mr. Morris met with a defense psychologist several times and then declined to see her or speak to her further.”

He refused to meet with a neuropsychologist for an evaluation that was scheduled for Aug. 7.

But on Oct. 5, he met with Karen Meeks, an attorney newly assigned to his team, and said “he might consider the presentation of some mitigation but was vague and ambiguous about that,” the defense motion states. “Mr. Morris has stated he might allow some family witnesses to testify, but not others. He has exhibited contradictory behavior and statements on this issue of permitting proper investigation, refusing cooperation with experts, and his willingness to all counsel to fully prepare for and present evidence and argument at penalty phase.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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