TAMPA — Lawyers for condemned killer Dontae Morris are asking a judge to order a new trial on charges he murdered Tampa police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.
Morris was sentenced to death last month for the killings, which happened during a motor vehicle stop in East Tampa on June 29, 2010. He is serving a life sentence for the murder of Rodney Jones weeks before and faces two more murder trials.
Now his lawyers are arguing that he should get a new trial based on what they say were several mistakes made by Circuit Judge William Fuente, including rulings he made during jury selection, over what evidence could be admitted and statements made by the officers’ widows at a hearing outside the presence of jurors.
For example, the defense says prosecutors should not have been allowed to present testimony from a jail deputy that Morris said, “I repent for killing.” That was an abbreviated version of his statement, “I repent for killing five people,” according to the deputy.
The defense maintains that Morris was psychotic when he made the statement and was not knowingly confessing.
Defense lawyers also say the judge should not have allowed the officers’ family members to make a second series of victim impact statements, following the first statements they made in front of the jury that was considering whether to recommend a death sentence.
The second hearing, which did not involve jurors, included more statements from the police widows, as well as other family members. The lawyers say the statements “violated every tenet of the case law on the limitations placed on victim impact testimony ... The contents of the statements were the most egregious violations of victim impact rules that this counsel has ever encountered in 37 years of death penalty practice. These included explicit requests by family members to have the court impose the death penalty and comments improperly directed at the defendant himself, which were pejorative.”
During that hearing, Sara Kocab forgave Morris for killing her husband and then asked Fuente to sentence him to death.
The defense also cited an incident during jury selection in Orlando when a jury candidate said, “I have a little theory. If you are in court and have been charged and found guilty of first-degree murder, you are wasting taxpayers’ money to do another performance. You are guilty, guilty, guilty!”
The defense says this was a reference to Morris’ previous conviction in the Jones case, which jurors in the police killings trial were not supposed to know about.
The judge denied a defense request at the time to strike the entire jury panel after agreeing with Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner that it sounded like a reference to the fact that the trial would have two phases - the first involving a finding of whether Morris was guilty of murder and the second for the jury to recommend whether he should be sentenced to death.
Both of Morris’ murder case juries have been selected in Orlando after Fuente was unable to seat a jury in Tampa because of extensive news coverage of his charges.