Tuesday, June 19, 2018
News Roundup

A courtroom of loss: The Dontae Morris trial begins in the deaths of two officers

They lined up outside the courtroom Tuesday morning, the reporters and the curious, the loved ones of the dead and of the accused. Some brought seat cushions from home for the courtroom's unforgiving wooden benches and the long hours to come.

More than three years ago and a few miles east, Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were working a midnight shift, making what they surely thought was a routine arrest, when they were gunned down on a dark roadside. Since then, about a million miles of lawyerly argument, judicial ruling and tedious jury selection led to this, the trial of Dontae Morris.

People crowded onto benches on opposite sides of the courtroom, some pointedly behind the prosecutors' table, others behind Morris and the defense, a grim parody of bride's side or groom's.

Morris sat skinny and still, neatly dressed but his hair a mess, looking like what he was watching had little to do with him. His face did not change when the prosecutor told the jury he was a "vicious, brutal, determined killer." That it didn't matter that the officers had Tasers, or one of them a bullet-proof vest. That Morris pretended to cooperate and pulled his gun and fired it over his shoulder so fast that two deadly shots sounded like one. "Cold-blooded," the prosecutor said, and Morris sat there. He did not turn when his mother came in and took a seat behind him.

Kelly Curtis, once a cop's wife, now his widow, stepped up to the witness stand and you steeled yourself for what she would say and all she had lost. She was steady.

"He was my husband," she answered, and yes, that was the little notebook he carried in his pocket to work, the one in which he wrote Morris' name and birth date moments before he died. Yes, that was his handwriting. She testified only a minute. Back at her seat on those hard courtroom benches, a sea of people seemed to envelop her.

Even in all of the darkness in the courtroom were moments of absurdity: the defense lawyer who was the spitting image of Dwight Schrute on The Office, another lawyer in a pink-flowered hat. An early technical glitch meant fancy electronic equipment would not immediately impress the jury. And when lawyers went to the bench for whispered argument before the judge, white noise played in the courtroom, sounding improbably like waves on a beach.

Outside the courthouse, a lone protestor carried a hand-lettered poster. DONTAE MORRIS — VICTIM! it said.

A big black screen faced the jurors. Later in the day, they would watch video of two men doing their jobs and suddenly gunned down. They would learn the officers fell together, one across the other's chest, one breathing his last by the time help arrived, the other already gone.

A cop going gray at the temples, surely a veteran of dozens of trials, testified about being first on the scene. For one terrible, silent moment on the stand, he was overcome, his head bowed. Then the trial moved on.

If the jurors convict Morris — the lady busily taking notes, the man with earphones so he did not miss a word, the one who looked so young you wondered if he could drive at night — then they go on to recommend whether he should live out his life in prison or die for this crime.

In that courtroom, all I could think was the loss, the waste of it all, and wonder how anyone puts on a uniform every morning to do the job of being a cop.

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