TAMPA — It took jurors less than an hour Tuesday to unanimously recommend that three-time convicted murderer Dontae Morris be executed for killing Tampa police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.
“The fact that they came back 12-0 speaks volumes about the viciousness of Dontae Morris' crimes,” said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor after the verdict was announced. “He didn't just kill two police officers. He killed others in the community. If there is an instance where the death penalty is applicable, then this is it. The jury said that loud and clear.”
Morris, who also was convicted in March of killing another man, Rodney Jones, faces two more trials on charges he murdered Derek Anderson and Harold Wright.
Castor said the jury decision was no cause for celebration. “I don't want anybody to mistake this for some kind of victory because it doesn't bring Dave and Jeff back and it doesn't bring back ... the other individuals Dontae Morris has killed.''
Morris' mother and stepfather had no comment as they were escorted out of the courthouse after the verdict.
The same jury took four hours Friday to convict Morris of murdering the officers during a traffic stop on June 29, 2010. And jurors learned Tuesday that Morris was convicted in March of killing another man, Rodney Jones, in a robbery outside the Cotton Club 30 days before the officers were shot to death.
The prior murder conviction, the fact Curtis and Kocab were killed in the line of duty and that Morris committed the murders to escape arrest were factors submitted by the prosecution in favor of a death sentence.
The defense argued Morris, whose father was murdered when he was 2, had a difficult childhood but looked after his younger brother and sister and played football as a teen. Morris, they also said, has a 7-year-old son and had been active in his life.
Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, testified she was devastated when she learned her son was a suspect in the murders.
She said she gave birth to him when she was 16 and living with her parents, that she was overwhelmed by postpartum depression and allowed her ailing mother to raise her son when he was an infant.
She said when Morris' father, David, was murdered, “It was very difficult. I was faced with trying to have a family and maintain my life, too.”
In Florida, jurors do not have the final say regarding a death sentence; their verdict is considered a recommendation. Circuit Judge William Fuente will determine Morris' sentence after convening a hearing to allow the defense to present more evidence. Fuente scheduled that hearing for Jan. 10.
The officers' widows didn't speak after the jury's verdict was announced Tuesday, although they flanked Castor when she spoke to reporters. The women also gave heart-wrenching victim impact statements to the Orange County jurors before the panel deliberated.
“Dave Curtis will forever be known to this community as a hero because of the way he died,” Kelly Curtis said in her victim impact statement. “However, I like to remember him for the way he lived. He was my everything. He was my husband, soul mate, best friend and the one person who I could pour my heart out to and he never judged me. He loved me for who I was. He was also the best father my kids could have ever asked for. At the time of his death, our boys were 9, 8, 5 and 8 months old. Today, they're 12, 11, 9 and 4.”
She spoke of trying to keep her husband's memory alive, even as her youngest sometimes doesn't recognize him in pictures.
“Our 4-year-old son asked when he was 2, 'Mom where's my daddy' And before I could answer his question, he responded, 'My daddy's in heaven, right?. The bad guy shot my daddy.' No 2-year-old should ever have to ask that kind of question or have that become his reality.”
Sara Kocab spoke about the pain of her doomed pregnancy. Their daughter, Lily, was due to be born days after her husband was killed.
They were overjoyed at the news of the child but then were faced with the horror of a diagnosis that the baby's brain was not developing and a recommendation from a doctor that she have an abortion.
“We both knew right away that we would not terminate the pregnancy,” she said. “We put our hope and trust in God. If his plan was to take our baby home with him, then he would decide that, not us. We both held onto our faith and prayed that God's will be done. It was a mentally exhausting pregnancy, but we were getting through it together.”
She spoke of the knock on her door that came early in the morning. It was, she said, “The beginning of my life spinning rapidly out of control. I can't put into words the feelings that raced through me when I found out that Jeff was murdered. All I wanted to do was lay right next to him, and that is what I did.
“It is hard to remember the days that followed,” she continued. “Lily came later than expected. The doctors induced labor on July 21. I had a lot of support at that time, but no support could take the place of or be sufficient enough as the support of my husband. Lily was delivered stillborn. And so almost a month after burying my husband, I buried our baby.”
Sharlotte Hamilton, who is close friends with Morris' mother and considers Morris her nephew, testified about her horror when she heard about the officers' deaths. She said she has trouble accepting that Morris is responsible.
“From the child and the baby that I know, from seeing him as a child and growing up, you know I have to accept, I have to accept what verdict that was given to him,” she said. “But to sit here and say I just can't - I can't fathom him being, it's hard for me to sit here and to say I believe this.”
Defense lawyer Byron Hileman urged jurors to show mercy.
“The victims in this case are tragic,” Hileman said. “Their loss is tragic. No one would deny that. Dontae Morris is a human being as well and is entitled to have you consider all the facts before making your recommendation,”
Defense witnesses testified that Morris was physically abused by his stepfather, and that he formed a paternal relationship with his step-grandfather, who became addicted to drugs and died after an accident in which he was burned by chemicals.
But Castor was unimpressed by the claims of hardship.
“Everything that I heard throughout the courtroom testimony said that Dontae Morris had just about the same childhood that everybody else did,” she said. “Where he made that turn, I have no idea, but there is no doubt that he is an evil individual.”
Castor said a statement by Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner in his summation “affected me very deeply when he said not only were Jeff and Dave out there serving their community that evening, but they were also protecting those constitutional rights that Dontae Morris was able to enjoy throughout this trial. He deserved a fair trial, and the jury came to the only possible verdict. We do have the death penalty in the state of Florida and I can't think of another case that deserves it more than this one.”