TAMPA On the first day of testimony in Dontae Morris’ first murder trial, a detention deputy testified he heard Morris say “I repent for killing,’’ but a defense attorney told jurors there is “very little reliable evidence’’ against his client.
Morris is charged with killing Rodney “Scarface” Jones, who was shot through the neck outside a West Tampa nightclub. The shooting happened a month before authorities say Morris gunned down two Tampa police officers.
On Monday, nearly three years after the slayings, jurors bused in from Orlando began hearing evidence in the Jones killing – the first of four murder trials expected for Morris. Jones, 42, shot outside the Cotton Club, is the second of five men Morris is accused of killing over a six-week spree of violence in May and June of 2010.
First killed was Derek Anderson on May 18, followed by Jones on May 31 and then Harold Wright on June 8. Finally, Morris was captured on video fatally shooting officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis on June 29, 2010, prosecutors say.
The jury for the Jones murder trial was picked in Orlando last week after a failed attempt last year to find a jury in Tampa.
Circuit Judge William Fuente is taking pains to ensure jurors are unaware of the other murder charges, warning lawyers Monday morning to caution witnesses to limit their testimony so as not to cause a mistrial.
That restriction caused some testimony to lack context.
Detention Deputy Ruben Clemente testified that more than a year after the killing, on Nov. 15, 2011, he heard Morris say inside his jail cell: “I repent for killing.”
Under cross-examination, Clemente said he didn’t hear Morris make any reference to Jones or the Cotton Club shooting. But Clemente didn’t say whether Morris mentioned any other names or whether Morris was talking to anyone when he made the statement.
But the constraints were not only on prosecution witnesses. Defense lawyer Byron Hileman wanted to question another witness who said she saw Morris outside the Cotton Club that night. The witness picked Morris’ picture out of a police photo lineup several months after the killing.
Hileman wanted to ask the witness if she had seen Morris’ picture before she saw the lineup. But asking that question would risk opening the door to letting the prosecution ask about the circumstances; Morris’ picture had been in media reports about the police killings.
And so Hileman decided not to question the witness’ identification of Morris.
Hileman told jurors in his opening statement that the prosecution case is weak. “There is very little reliable evidence as to who did the killing,” Hileman said. The defense lawyer said there is no physical evidence, DNA, fingerprints, murder weapon or robbery proceeds linking Morris to the killing.
The prosecution’s case, he said, is “a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Assistant Hillsborough State Attorney Scott Harmon told jurors Morris confessed to “his former paramour,” Ashley Price, whom Harmon described as “one of the most critical witnesses in this case.”
Harmon said Morris told Price he killed Jones because he was angry about an earlier robbery Jones had committed. Morris later contacted Price from the jail and tried to talk to her about her cooperation, Harmon said.
Hileman said Price “was brought under great pressures by the police to cooperate and give the testimony she gave.”
But Tampa Detective Charles Massucci testified Price voluntarily came to police with information about Morris. “She approached law enforcement with this information,” Massucci said. “We didn’t know she existed until she did.”
Morris’ then-girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, who recently was convicted of a federal offense for concealing from authorities that Morris was a felon in possession of a firearm, sent Morris a text message within 90 minutes of the Jones killing, Harmon told jurors.
Morris and Brantley’s text messages after the police killings were an important part of the evidence in Brantley’s federal trial.
Harmon said Morris sent hundreds of text messages after the Jones killing, including texts telling Brantley to give him an alibi.
“Listen,” Harmon said one of the texts to Brantley read, “if anything foolish happens, you and me spunt the night together in Palm River.” Three minutes later, Morris texted Brantley, “You caught a cab, too, and erase these after you read.”
Harmon said Morris referred to Brantley as “wifey,” and the two texted each other about sex acts and jealousy.
Witnesses saw Morris outside the club that night. Harmon said at least one other suspect was involved in the Jones killing.
Although the prosecution said cell phone signal evidence will put Morris in the vicinity of the Cotton Club at the time of the killing, Hileman said the evidence is far from precise.
“They have a very strong case to prove that Mr. Jones was killed,” the defense lawyer said. “We believe that the evidence does not show with a sufficient degree of reliability to be beyond any reasonable doubt that Dontae Morris was involved at all.”