TAMPA - Lawyers for Dontae Morris are trying to prevent the prosecution from using the most powerful piece of evidence against him: the dashboard video that appears to show Morris fatally shooting two Tampa police officers.
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.
The defense is now arguing that Morris' actions that night were the "product of flagrant unlawful police action." His lawyers say that Morris was illegally detained that night and that all evidence and statements on the video must be suppressed.
Morris is scheduled to go on trial in November. Because of the publicity surrounding the high-profile slayings and subsequent manhunt for Morris, Circuit Judge William Fuente plans to select a jury in Orlando. The judge said Friday he will issue a ruling soon on whether he will conduct the trial in Tampa or Orlando.
Fuente said he also will rule on a defense motion asking him to suppress Curtis' dashboard video. The video already has been shown in federal court during two trials for Morris' girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, who was eventually convicted of concealing from authorities that Morris was a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.
As shown on the video, the incident started as a routine traffic stop; Brantley's red Toyota didn't have a license tag. After some back and forth with Brantley, Curtis asks the passenger 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.
Inside the car, Brantley yells, "Ba! Ba!" Then she speeds away, her rear tire spinning mud from the ground, leaving the two dead or dying officers on the side of the road.
Morris' lawyers are now arguing that "the suspect alleged to be Mr. Morris" was unlawfully detained because Curtis didn't have grounds to ask for his identification or tell him to stay put while Curtis ran Morris' name through his computer.
In its response, the prosecution says Morris doesn't have legal standing to bring the motion because the defense isn't conceding it was Morris in the video.
"As a passive occupant, unrelated to the traffic stop for an unregistered tag, the suspect complied with the officer's demands to identify himself," the defense motion states.
"Demanding identification from the passenger information to run a warrant check, while lacking any articulable reasonable suspicion, the officer had placed the suspect in a circumstance where no reasonable person could have believed he was free to decline or terminate the encounter."
By requiring the passenger to stay in the car while he went to his squad car to check for warrants, Curtis "exceeded the scope of the traffic stop," the defense motion states. "This essentially turned the driver's traffic violation into an investigation of past wrongdoing ... . Therefore, without reasonable suspicion that the passenger committed a crime or was a threat, the passenger was unlawfully detained, which would require that video be excluded as poisonous fruit of an unlawful detainment."
But the prosecution noted that Curtis remained on the driver's side of Brantley's car while questioning the passenger and never tried to restrain him from leaving.
The prosecution response says Curtis didn't detain the passenger when he was questioning him, and that the conversation was a "consensual encounter."
The defense motion also notes that the worthless check warrants that prompted the arrest attempt were later determined to be invalid. The widows of Curtis and Kocab have sued the Duval County sheriff over the warrants. The lawsuit says authorities determined Morris was in prison when the bad checks were written, but the Duval County Sheriff's Office never took the warrants out of the state system.
Morris' defense argues that since the warrants were invalid, the video evidence of the passenger's actions while being arrested for them should be suppressed.
"Due to flagrant misconduct by the state, a warrant unsupportable by probable cause had been registered to Mr. Morris for writing bad checks," the defense motion states.
"After finding the warrants in the system, an officer approached the car door and announced that the officer knew about his warrant. Then as both officers stood outside his door, they ordered that he exit the vehicle to arrest him. The passenger's subsequent behavior of attacking the police was the product of flagrant unlawful police action, and with every movement the video was recording, seconds of tainted videographic evidence was being taken by the police's dash camera."
The prosecution responded that 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.
"It was not until much later that it was discovered that the warrant had been issued in error," the prosecution response states.
In addition, the prosecution argues, "the video images of the defendant shooting the officers is not a reasonable outcome of the arrest, but instead a separate, unrelated, violent criminal act committed by the defendant."