TAMPA — There are criminals who hardly had a chance, men and women habituated to violence by emotional disorders, low intelligence or abusive parents who broke their gauges of right and wrong.
Dontae Morris, convicted of the murders of two Tampa police officers, is not one of them, according to courtroom testimony Friday.
At a hearing, the last scheduled before Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente rules on whether or not Morris will be executed, Dr. Emily Lazarou of Tampa said she could find little in Morris' behavior to suggest — as a defense expert had testified a day earlier — that his judgment was crippled by below-average intelligence.
Instead, she sketched a portrait of a canny and highly literate young man who indulged in the writing of long letters from jail. Some included courtly salutations, such as "I ask that you forgive my delay … " Morris even had "fantastic" penmanship, Lazarou opined.
"He sort of takes pride in his intellect," she said. "He's a very spiritual guy, and when you read the letters, you see that in there."
In November, a jury found Morris guilty of the murders of Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis and recommended he be sentenced to death. He shot the officers during a 2010 traffic stop.
After hearing Thursday and Friday from a variety of people affected by the crime, Fuente asked prosecutors and defense attorneys to submit written arguments about whether Morris should receive the death penalty. He is expected to rule at the end of May.
Morris, 28, is already serving a life sentence for an earlier murder conviction, and has charges pending for two additional killings — five in all.
In an unusually lengthy conversation with reporters Friday morning, his mother, Selecia Watson, said she still believes Morris is innocent, at least of the murders of Kocab and Curtis.
She said she was not convinced by a police cruiser dashboard-camera video in which Morris is recorded identifying himself by name and then shooting the officers.
"He told me one time, he said, 'Mom, I could not have done anything like this,' " Watson said.
A day after the slain officers' family members lambasted Morris in their own statements, Watson was given the chance to speak to the judge Friday. She used her time to recite various religious messages to her son.
"Know, my son, that the enemy will always be with you. He will be in the shadows of your dreams, and in your living flesh, for he is the other part of yourself," Watson said, echoing a mystical quotation rooted in Hasidic Judaism.
"What my purpose was, was to give my son a little hope," she said after the hearing. "He's been in a cold-hearted, degrading situation, so I wanted to uplift his spirit."
That motherly affection was referenced by Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, who also took time to address Fuente at Friday's hearing. Nothing in the details of Morris' upbringing, as they emerged at trial last year, helps explain why he killed at least three people in the summer of 2010, Castor said.
"What I heard was a childhood of love and support," Castor said. "How did he become a person of no conscience?"
Castor omitted any mention of the death penalty in her courtroom statement, at Fuente's request. However, in a written version of her remarks released to the media afterward by the Tampa Police Department, she said Morris deserved to be executed.
"I believe in God and embrace most of the Bible's teachings," Castor wrote. "But, I do question 'an eye for an eye'. I have seen too much in my 30 years of law enforcement to believe that there is any meaning or relief in that process."
She added, "However, the actions of this defendant have altered that view. I can say that, in my humble opinion, if there was ever a case where the death penalty applied, it is here and now."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.