TAMPA — Some of the most damning and controversial testimony against Dontae Morris came from a witness Wednesday who said Morris told her he killed two “crackers” by shooting them in the head after they questioned him about a warrant.
Defense lawyers unsuccessfully sought a mistrial after Ashley Price's testimony, elicited from the prosecution, that she had to move because of threats against her and her family.
That testimony came in response to defense questions about Price receiving money from police to help with her moving expenses.
Price, a three-time felon with probation violations, testified in quiet monosyllables and didn't give an explanation as to why Morris would confide in her hours after he is accused of murdering Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a traffic stop on June 29, 2010.
Price, 25, testified she had sex with Morris once, and he called her every other day in the months leading up to the shootings. She said he liked the fact she is quiet.
Price testified Morris called her less than an hour after the 2:20 a.m. slayings to ask for a ride, which she did not provide. Then around noon, she said, Morris called and told her to turn on the news about the officer killings.
Morris told her he was the one who had shot them, she testified.
Price said Morris told her he shot the officers to get away from them, that one had run his name for warrants, and that he had gotten the gun from beneath the car seat.
Price went to Tampa police with this information the next day, she and a detective testified.
Defense lawyers suggested Price had two motives to lie - financial and fear. But under cross-examination by attorney Karen Meeks, Price denied police threatened to arrest her or report her to the Department of Children and Families.
Meeks elicited from Price that Tampa police helped Price by giving her money to help her relocate.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon asked Price if she needed to move recently because of threats against her and her family. Defense lawyers objected to the question, and Price didn't respond.
Afterward, outside the presence of jurors, defense lawyer Byron Hileman moved for a mistrial, arguing that “irreparable harm” had been done because of the implication that Morris was behind the threats against Price.
Hileman said there was “a clear implication that the defendant was responsible for the threats,” adding, “This trial's been contaminated...It's been prejudiced. That simply cannot be cured.”
Harmon said there was no evidence Morris had anything to do with the threats, which were made against Price and her sister after Price testified against Morris in his last murder trial in March. Morris was convicted then of murdering Rodney Jones and has been sentenced to life in that case.
Harmon said people made threats on the Internet and at Price's home, accusing her of being a “snitch.”
Hileman said evidence introduced earlier in the day Wednesday, while proper, provided a context that bolstered any impression that Morris was behind the threats to Price. That evidence involved a phone call Morris made to Price from jail, asking her to come visit him.
“Why you talking like that?” Morris demanded on the call. “Come on, man. What's going on with you all, man?”
Price agreed on the call to visit Morris the next day but testified she never did go to see him in jail.
Morris was recorded telling others he wanted Price to “tell the truth” and suggested she was saying things because police had threatened to take away her children.
“People lying on me,” Morris said. “That's what the police been doing. They been making all these people lie on this, man. You smell me?”
Hileman said he wasn't challenging the use of the jail phone conversations in the trial, only asserting that they contributed to the false impression that Morris was behind threats to Price that caused her to relocate.
Circuit Judge William Fuente said the prosecution was allowed to counter the defense's implication that Price was influenced by financial assistance from police. But the judge said it was “inappropriate” for Harmon to have asked the question without consulting with the judge first.
Still, Fuente denied the motion for a mistrial. At the request of the defense, and with the consent of the prosecution, the judge told jurors that the parties agreed that there was no evidence that Morris was behind threats against Price that caused her to move.
Tampa Police Sgt. Charles Massucci testified that the department helped Price move about a month ago, providing a total of $2,000 for moving expenses, security deposit and first month's rent on her new place. Massucci said he first tried to secure assistance from local charities to find long-term housing with child care but was unsuccessful.
Also testifying Wednesday were four different Hillsborough County jail deputies, as well as a Tampa police detective, who said they were very familiar with Morris' voice and could attest that it was the voice of the person recorded on Curtis' dashboard camera shooting the two deputies.
The testimony was introduced over objections from defense lawyers, who argue that the law enforcement officers have no special training in voice recognition and that the voice comparison should be left to jurors.
“I don't think there's any type of training that you need to become familiar with someone's voice,” testified retired Tampa Det. Henry Duran under cross examination. “Everyone's distinctive in their tone, the way they speak.”
Jurors also heard from Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Leszek Chrostowski, who testified the officers both died from gunshot wounds to the head, with the muzzle of the gun being between six inches and two feet away.