TAMPA — Dontae Morris could not overcome a “mountain of evidence,” including a dashboard video recording showing him kill two Tampa police officers and then running away as they lay dead or dying on the side of a road.
An Orange County jury, bused in to Tampa, took four hours Friday night to convict Morris of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of escape in the killings of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on June 29, 2010.
The jurors will reconvene on Tuesday to hear evidence over whether they should recommend a death sentence for Morris, who is already serving life in prison without parole for his conviction in March of the murder of Rodney Jones. A judge will make the final decision.
Morris did not testify and the defense put on no witnesses and presented no evidence to defend him against charges in the officers' killings during what started as a routine traffic stop when Morris' girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, was pulled over by Curtis for not having a license plate on her car.
Defense lawyers implied, but never directly said, that police had the wrong person.
The slayings, which led to a four-day manhunt, rocked the city, leaving scars from wounds that were opened anew with the trial.
“This week has brought all of those feelings to the surface again,” said Police Chief Jane Castor after the verdict, “but as I said before, it was necessary to do that.”
Curtis' widow, Kelly, addressed reporters after the verdict, thanking the community for its support and commending the prosecution team. “We couldn't have been so strong if it wasn't for all that support and our faith,” she said, speaking also on behalf of Kocab's widow, Sara. “We're very pleased with the outcome of the trial and are relieved that he's not going to be able to hurt another person in the community.
“We'd also like to thank our family and friends for being there for us on all levels,” she continued, then turned to a phalanx of Tampa police officers who stood behind her. “ And, lastly, to you guys for being there to support us. TPD, thank you. We couldn't have done it without you guys.”
The widows didn't want to answer questions, but Castor did.
Asked if Morris should receive a death sentence, the chief demurred.
“That's not for me to decide,” she said. “The jury will make that decision... Life and death, in this instance, is not the decision of the Tampa Police Department or the families of Dave and Jeff. I don't want to speak for them, but I believe that what everyone was looking for here was to say once and for all that he was responsible for the deaths of both Dave and Jeff and that he will never be a free person again.”
As an indication of the relief that has washed over police with the verdict, Castor even joked a bit. When asked if the four-hour length of deliberation gave her concern, she said, “Anything past about five minutes, I think, gave everybody some concern.”
But then she added. “It's a difficult decision to make and I don't want to make light of it - but there was no other decision to make. Clearly, he was guilty to this crime.”
Before the verdict was read, Morris stood, wearing an untucked brown, button-down shirt and crossing his hands behind his back.
He was emotionless as he was found guilty on all counts. His mother, Selecia Watson, stood 10 feet away from her son. She also showed no emotion. Morris never looked back at his mother, even as he was being escorted out of the courtroom.
Watson said she would talk to the media after the penalty phase of the trial.
Castor was stoic as the verdict was being read. She sat on the end of the second row next to the widows of Kocab and Curtis, who both remained composed, though some family and friends of the two dead officers did cry with relief. But the courtroom remained quiet and composed as Circuit Judge William Fuente gave instructions to the jurors and the alternates.
Once the jurors left the courtroom, family, friends and former colleagues of Curtis and Kocab hugged, embraced and smiled in relief.
When the family and friends walked out of the courtroom, they were met by dozens of Tampa police officers who had formed two lines as a walkway. The wives of both officers, their families and Castor walked between the two lines and thanked the officers for their support.
Morris' defense lawyer, Byron Hileman, said his job was to get his client a fair and impartial trial.
“The jury's job is to make a decision,” Hileman said. “We accept their decision. We believe in the system.”
During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon argued that the dashboard video was all the evidence needed to convict Morris of first-degree murder.
Harmon said there also was a “mountain” of evidence that corroborated that Morris was the person seen killing the two officers in the video captured by the camera in Curtis' patrol car. Curtis and his backup, Kocab, were shot to death around 2:20 a.m. on June 29, 2010, in East Tampa.
In seeking the death penalty, the prosecution intends to argue four aggravating factors:
- The defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony.
- The murders were committed to prevent a lawful arrest or to escape from custody.
- The murders were “cold, calculated and premeditated.''
- The victims were law enforcement officers performing their official functions.
The defense has not announced the factors it intends to present but has notified the court it plans to present testimony from Morris' family, including his mother and siblings, as well as a mitigation specialist.
During closing arguments Friday, Morris' defense team urged jurors not to let the emotion of the case cloud their judgment.
“Nothing that anyone can do can undo the pain and loss suffered by the victims in this case and their families,” said lawyer Karen Meeks, who urged jurors to made a decision based on facts. “That's going to be extremely difficult because this case is one that's emotional,” she added.
The defense argued that the prosecution didn't prove Morris was the shooter and that testimony by law enforcement officers identifying Morris' voice on the recording was tainted by bias.
“They're part of the brotherhood of law enforcement,” Meeks told jurors. “That connection makes it difficult, I suggest to you impossible, for these officers to be unbiased.”
Jurors began deliberations at around 3:30 p.m. and announced their decision around 7:30 Friday night.
In his summation, Harmon played for jurors snippets of the audio portion of the dashboard video in which the shooter gave Morris' name, birth date and age to Curtis. He interspersed those recordings with recordings of Morris talking on the phone from jail, trying to demonstrate for jurors that the two voices came from the same person.
Harmon noted that the passenger in Cortnee Brantley's car that morning didn't hesitate when Curtis repeatedly asked his name and how to spell it, and give his age and date of birth. The person had no time to make anything up, Harmon said.
“This video is the strongest evidence in the case of the defendant's identity,” Harmon said.
Curtis, Harmon said, created a “record of evidence of the person who minutes later would murder him.”
Harmon also noted that Curtis went to his patrol car and entered Morris' information on his computer, which displayed information and a photograph. When he returned to the passenger side of the car, he shined a flashlight in the passenger's face and did not challenge that the passenger was Morris, Harmon said.
And when Curtis asked the passenger about the warrant, he didn't deny he was Morris, Harmon noted.
While the defense team challenged whether the prosecution proved Morris was the shooter, they never directly said he wasn't.
Reporter Jose Patino contributed to this story.