TAMPA — A circuit judge will rule by the end of the week whether to delay the sentencing of Dontae Morris because a Tampa police detective who testified at Morris’ trial is the focus of a federal grand jury investigation.
Morris was convicted in November of killing police officers Dave Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a 2010 traffic stop.
While state prosecutors denied knowing the nature of the federal probe, they did say that the U.S. Attorney’s Office informed them the investigation of Eric Houston, a detective fired last month, likely will last through Labor Day.
Circuit Judge William Fuente was initially asked by defense attorney Byron Hileman for a six-week continuance, or until the facts of the investigation involving Houston are revealed. He said he has 10 days after sentencing to file a motion for new trial, and can’t file that motion if the nature of the probe is unknown. Hileman said Houston played a large part of the prosecution’s case against Morris — Houston testimony took up 84 pages of transcript and he was the witness who vouched for several pieces of evidence, mostly photographs.
“He was the person in total control of the crime-scene processing,” Hileman said. “If these charges are germane to our case, obviously prejudice may be a real possibility.”
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon denied that, saying any testimony given by Houston could have been, or was, corroborated by other law enforcement officers. He cited case law that said a conviction will stand unless it was proven that an officer’s misdeeds were directly connected to that case.
“As far as we know,” Harmon said, “this (federal) investigation is not related in any way to Detective Houston’s work on this case.”
“That’s the problem,” Hileman said. “I don’t know if it is relevant. (Harmon) is giving us assurances about things he doesn’t know about.”
Hileman’s motion to continue his client’s sentencing hearing, scheduled for May 30, may be the first ripple in cases that Houston worked. When it was revealed in April that federal officials were investigating the 24-year veteran of the force, police are combing through 19 criminal cases in which Houston played a part to determine how to move forward on those prosecutions.
Houston was a homicide investigator who worked on some of the city’s more publicized homicide cases, including those involving Morris, Julie Schenecker, currently on trial in the shooting deaths of her two children, and David Earl Williams, charged in the killing of University of Tampa student Ryan McCall in a 2009 robbery.
Houston was fired April 24. The focus of that investigation remains a mystery. Police Chief Jane Castor said he “did not deserve to wear the uniform,” and characterized his actions as “egregious.”
Morris faces the possibility of the death penalty in the officer-slaying case. The jury unanimously recommended that sentence.
Hileman said that because he does not know the specifics of the federal investigation, he cannot prepare the proper post-conviction motions.
“We do not have sufficient information at this stage,” he said. “Unless the grand jury acts so we know what we are talking about, we cannot go through with sentencing and have time to raise the appropriate issues.”
He said this is a potential death penalty case and the record must be preserved because “this may be litigated perhaps for decades.”
He asked Fuente to delay the proceeding until the facts are made public. But Harmon said that while he was not told the specifics of the federal case, he was told it could last into September. The state, he said, opposed any delay of sentencing for Morris.
Fuente said the May 30 sentencing hearing would remain on the docket for now.