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Friday, Nov 21, 2014
Crime & Courts

Dontae Morris sentenced to death in Tampa officers’ shootings

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Published:   |   Updated: May 30, 2014 at 08:54 PM

Convicted cop killer Dontae Morris displayed not a whisper of emotion Friday as he was sentenced to death at a 20-minute hearing in front of a packed courtroom filled mostly with law enforcement officers and families of the two victims, Tampa police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.

The brief hearing culminated nearly four years of seemingly endless court proceedings that prolonged the grief of the department, its supporters and much of the community.

“Today, a murderer was sentenced to death, said Tampa police Assistant Chief Brian Dugan after the hearing. “We are very satisfied with this sentence. This was about justice, not revenge.”

Morris, 28, was convicted in November of two counts of first-degree murder and escape.

The sentencing Friday morning sends a message, Dugan said.

“What he did was inexcusable. Jeff and Dave died heroes. They died protecting those who can’t protect themselves.”

Curtis’ widow, Kelly, thanked prosecutors, police and the community for the support she has received since the slayings.

“It’s been a long, hard and trying four years,” she said after the hearing, flanked by officers, family and Sara Kocab, widow of Jeffrey Kocab. “Faith, family and friends got us through this process ... It’s comforting to know that our justice system has worked today.”

Of her husband and Kocab, she said: “I hope they are never forgotten.”

She declined to take questions. Sara Kocab did not speak.

Circuit Judge William Fuente handed down the sentence in a fifth-floor Hillsborough County courtroom Friday morning, ending the case that started on the night of June 29, 2010, with the shooting deaths of Kocab and Curtis.

Fuente said he read the entire trial transcript and the transcript of the hearing held in March in which witnesses spoke on Morris’ behalf trying to convince the court that he did not deserve the death penalty. Fuente said he weighed the aggravating circumstances presented by the state to support the death sentence, and the mitigating circumstances, presented by the defense, and considered the 12-0 vote of the jury to recommend death as the appropriate sanction.

In a 21-page sentencing order, Fuente laid out his reasons for the sentence. He said he assigned “great weight” to two aggravating circumstances, that the killings were of police officers who were performing their official duties and that Morris previously was convicted and sentenced for another homicide in Tampa. The judge also gave “great weight” to the jury’s unanimous decision to recommend the death penalty.

In considering the 26 mitigating circumstances offered by the defense, including Morris’ statement of remorse, his difficult upbringing and his current family ties, Fuente gave moderate, minimal or no weight. In the end, the judge said that he “concludes and determines ... that the mitigating circumstances established by a preponderance of the evidence do not outweigh the aggravating circumstances ... “

The case, he said, “warrants the death sentence.”

He imposed the sentence on both counts and imposed a 15-year prison sentence on an accompanying charge of escape from custody.

Before the hearing, a bailiff told the crowd in the courtroom that any displays of emotion when the sentence was read would not be tolerated, and when Fuente announced the sentence, there was not a sound in the courtroom.

Morris’ family, including his mother, Selecia Watson, declined to comment after the hearing.

Shackled at his wrists and feet and wearing a red jail jumpsuit that said “Hillsborough County Jail State Inmate,” Morris left court without saying a word.

Defense attorney Byron Hileman Hileman said his client had expected to be sentenced to death and that may be the reason for Morris’ lack of reaction.

“This really was anti-climactic,” Hileman said. “We fought the fight.”

Morris already is serving a life prison sentence for the murder of Rodney Jones, shot to death outside the Cotton Club in Tampa in May 2010, and faces two more murder trials in the slayings of Harold Wright, 25, and Derek Anderson, 21.

Anderson was shot in the back on May 18, 2010, in the Kenneth Court Apartments parking lot as he walked home with a backpack full of freshly laundered clothes. Police said the slaying was a botched robbery.

Wright’s body was found near his Dodge Charger on June 8, 2010 in Palm River, dead of gunshot wound to the head in what was described as a drug-related homicide.

Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon announced in court Friday that he will seek the death penalty in the Anderson case, the next one to be prosecuted. The next hearing in that case was set for December.

Fuente denied a motion earlier this month to delay Friday’s sentencing hearing filed by Hileman, who renewed the motion Friday morning to the same result.

Morris shot and killed Kocab and Curtis as they were taking him into custody on a warrant out of Jacksonville, which turned out to be issued in error. After he shot the officers one time each in the head, Morris ran off and was the subject of a massive manhunt for three days before he turned himself in.

The murders and subsequent search held Tampa in its grip as law enforcement officers from all over the state looked for the cop killer. Police held news conferences twice a day, sometimes more, vowing that the killer of the officers would not escape.

“I felt a tremendous sense of relief to finally have justice and some conclusion to this tragedy. Nothing will fill the void of losing Jeff and Dave. The department is forever changed by these murders, but we rallied with the officers’ families and got through it together,” Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said in a prepared statement.

“Our entire community was changed the day that Dontae Morris took the lives of our officers,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in a statement issued Friday afternoon. “Each step along the way has brought us to where we are today. It began with the manhunt and later the arrest of Morris, and in November, with one voice, the jury said that he will never have the opportunity to inflict evil on our community again. With today’s sentencing, there is justice and finally, closure.

“After it all, let’s choose to celebrate the lives of Dave and Jeff, and to be grateful for the years they shared with their families, their friends, and our community.”

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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