TAMPA — Dontae Morris, the man accused of fatally shooting two Tampa police officers during a 2010 killing rampage, might not resist the imposition of the death penalty if a jury finds him guilty next month, his lawyers say.
The development in one of Tampa's most-watched murder cases emerged Friday, when Morris' attorneys told a judge they have been hamstrung in their efforts to prepare a worst-case, post-conviction strategy for their client. Against their advice, the 28-year-old Morris has said that if convicted he does not wish to present evidence that might sway jurors not to recommend a death sentence.
For reasons that remain unclear, he has protested against allowing his family members to speak on his behalf if a sentencing hearing occurs. He also refused to meet with a psychologist who showed up at the Falkenburg Road Jail in August to evaluate him for mental and emotional problems that might spare him the death penalty.
Though he has recently shown some signs of changing his mind, Morris remains "unclear about whether he would now cooperate with defense experts and investigators" who would try to keep him off death row, according to a motion filed by his defense team.
"We're paralyzed at this point," defense attorney Byron Hileman told Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente in a telephone conference at the Friday hearing, which Morris did not attend.
Fuente said he would question Morris about whether he wants to fight a potential death sentence at a hearing next week, an exchange that could offer a rare glimpse of Morris' mind-set three years after his arrest.
Capital defendants periodically waive their right to argue against a death sentence for a range of reasons, said Jennifer Zedalis, director of the trial practice program at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Some do so out of sophisticated self-interest, hoping that preventing their attorneys from arguing against the death penalty will later enable them to assert they did not receive effective legal representation.
But many others, Zedalis said, are what professionals in the criminal justice system call "volunteers" — capital defendants who want to die or have resigned themselves to execution. "It can be fatalism," Zedalis said. "It can be depression. You have mentally ill people that give up. There are any number of factors."
Morris is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 4 for the killings of police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. Authorities say he shot them during a traffic stop. Morris is already serving a life sentence after his conviction for another murder and has charges for two additional killings — five in all — still pending.
While the outcome of the November trial remains to be seen, observers say that prosecutors have marshaled a strong case against Morris in the police killings, including a video of the crime recorded by a police cruiser's dashboard camera.
After Friday's hearing, Hileman declined to comment on Morris' motives for not seeking to put up a fight against the death penalty. The defense motion states only that Morris "has several times indicated that he does not want to allow us to present mitigation or argument at penalty phase, in the event that becomes necessary in this case."
More recently, Morris has "agreed to permit some mitigating witnesses to testify, but was vague and ambiguous" in his assent, according to the defense motion. That is why Fuente will directly interview Morris to figure out his preference next week.
If Fuente determines after speaking with Morris that his decision is well-informed and voluntary, the defense will simply not present a case during the trial's sentencing phase, Hileman said. The judge could still appoint a special counsel, however, to investigate and submit evidence that Morris does not deserve to die.
Under Florida law, if a defendant is found guilty of first-degree murder a jury hears evidence on whether he deserves the death penalty. Some kinds of evidence, such as testimony about the killer's biography or psychology, are intended to weigh in favor of life imprisonment, rather than death.
A judge issues the final order of death or life imprisonment, but usually follows jurors' recommendation.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.