A jury deliberated for 5 ½ hours Wednesday before finding Dontae Morris guilty of murder and robbery in the 2010 slaying of Rodney Jones.
Prosecutors won the conviction despite the lack of fingerprints or DNA or eyewitnesses who could name the man who killed Jone outside the Cotton Club in West Tampa.
But the prosecution told jurors there was a “mountain of evidence” creating a trail leading directly to Morris.
Jurors, bused in from Orange County, began deliberating Wednesday afternoon and delivered their verdict about 9:15 p.m. The trial was the first of four murder trials for Morris, who is accused of murdering a total of five men, including two Tampa police officers.
The June 29, 2010, killings of officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis were captured on Curtis’ dashboard video camera, but evidence in the three other killings in the weeks leading up to the officers’ slayings is not as direct.
The evidence in the May 31, 2010, slaying of Jones, who was known as “Scarface,” is largely circumstantial.
Witnesses say they saw Morris outside the club that night. Cell phone tower records document he was in the vicinity of the club. But the one witness who testified about seeing the shooting could not identify the killer.
Within an hour of the killing, Morris sent text messages to his girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, that the prosecution says show him coaching her to create an alibi:
“Listen if any thing foolish happens you and me spunt the night 2 gether in palm river since 7 at nite.”
Three minutes later, a text read, “U kaught a kab 2 and erase these after you read.”
And then there’s the woman described by Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon as “the most critical witness in this case.” Ashley Price, who said she had sex with Morris once and talked to him almost daily.
Price, a three-time convicted felon, testified wearing a jail-issue jumpsuit that Morris told her he killed Jones because he was angry about a robbery Jones had committed in the past.
After Morris was charged in the Jones killing, he managed to telephone Price from jail, according to recordings introduced in the trial. Morris told her he wanted to talk to her, and she agreed to visit him the next day, but never did, according to the evidence.
Harmon said that phone call was clear evidence of guilt.
But defense lawyer Byron Hileman told jurors there were “considerable gaps” in the evidence.
“What it comes down to it is whether you believe Ashley Price, because none of the other evidence is anywhere near sufficient to prove Dontae Morris guilt by the very high standard our law imposes, beyond a reasonable doubt.” Hileman said in his summation. “It’s simply not there … Sometimes the lack of evidence speaks volumes.”