TAMPA — A video showing the killings of two police officers will be allowed as evidence in the murder trial of Dontae Morris, a judge ruled Thursday.
Morris, who was sentenced to life in March for the murder of Rodney Jones, faces a possible death sentence if convicted in the murders of police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on June 29, 2010. His trial for the officers’ killings is set to begin in November.
The defense had asked Circuit Judge William Fuente to bar the use at trial of the video from Curtis’ patrol car showing the shooting deaths. The defense argued that Morris’ actions that night were the “product of flagrant unlawful police action.” His lawyers said that Morris was illegally detained that night and that all evidence and statements on the video should be suppressed.
At the center of the defense’s motion was the fact that when the officers were killed, they were trying to arrest Morris on what was later learned to be an inactive warrant.
As shown on the video, the incident started as a routine traffic stop; Cortnee Brantley’s red Toyota didn’t have a license tag. After some back and forth with Brantley, Curtis asks the passenger for his name and the passenger responds with Dontae Morris’ full name and date of birth.
Curtis writes down the information in a notebook.
After running Morris’ name through his computer, Curtis walks back to the car, this time to the passenger side. Behind him walks Kocab, who has arrived as backup.
“What’s the deal with your warrant?” Curtis says to the passenger. He tells the man to step out of the car. The passenger gets out and looks like he’s complying as the officers tell him to put his hands behind his back.
Then suddenly, in one movement, the man raises his arm and at close range, shoots the two officers in the head. In the same movement, he tumbles to the ground but continues his forward motion, springing up and away.
The defense also argued in their motion that Curtis had no right to ask Morris for his identification.
The prosecution argued successfully that the conversation between Curtis and Morris was consensual. Moreover, the prosecution said, Curtis was acting in good faith when he tried to arrest the passenger, relying on an active arrest warrant found when he did a computer check.
Fuente rejected another prosecution argument — that Morris had no standing to challenge the legality of the motor vehicle stop because he wasn’t conceding that he was the passenger in Brantley’s car. The judge wrote in his order that the video of the stop — the prosecution’s own evidence — demonstrated that Morris was the passenger.
Fuente said the two officers acted lawfully when they conducted the motor vehicle stop and in good faith when they attempted to arrest Morris on the incorrect warrant. “While perhaps negligent,” the record keeping by Duval law enforcement authorities who issued the warrant was not systematic or recurring, Fuente wrote.
The judge also ruled that “Morris’ act of shooting both officers captured on video” was not evidence subjected to suppression by the court because the officers had the legal right to be there that night.