TAMPA — Defense attorneys are asking a judge to toss out what is arguably the most compelling piece of evidence against Dontae Morris, the man charged with murdering two Tampa police officers in 2010.
In a motion filed with Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente, Morris' attorneys assert that a video showing a man who appears to be Morris fatally shooting the officers should not be admitted as evidence in his upcoming trial.
The reason? The suspect was illegally detained as a passenger during the traffic stop that led up to the killings, and the video captured by a police cruiser's dashboard camera was thus not lawfully obtained evidence, the attorneys say.
"The passenger's subsequent behavior of attacking the police was the product of flagrant unlawful police action, and with every moment that the video was recording, seconds of tainted videographic evidence were being taken by the police's dash camera," the defense motion states.
Morris, now 27, was riding in a car driven by his girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, in June 2010. Tampa police Officer David Curtis pulled over Brantley for driving without a license plate. During the stop, Curtis asked for Morris' name and discovered there were warrants for his arrest.
Curtis and a second officer who had arrived on scene, Jeffrey Kocab, then approached Morris' side of the car and asked him to exit. Within seconds of stepping out, Morris pulled a gun, shot both officers in the head and ran off, prosecutors say.
It later turned out that the arrest warrants for Morris — issued for writing bad checks — were invalid. That too renders the video of the shooting inadmissible as evidence, according to his defense attorneys.
In arguing that police error contaminated the evidence against Morris, his attorneys are falling back on a classic criminal defense strategy — albeit one applied to unusually wrenching circumstances.
"It's fascinating, because if the defense can persuade the judge that but for an illegal detention, the dash-cam (video) wouldn't exist, they might have an argument," said Jennifer Zedalis, director of trial practice at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
But the argument could be complicated, Zedalis said, by the fact that the dashboard video was already being shot before officers questioned or tried to arrest Morris — and thus might not be viewed as a result of any effort to question or detain him.
The video was already played as evidence in a separate case against Brantley that sprang out of her failure to provide information to police about Morris.
Prosecutors have filed a response to the defense motion saying that Morris was not illegally detained but rather questioned in a "consensual encounter" during which he was free to leave at any time. They also state that Curtis and Kocab were "acting in good faith" in their efforts to serve the warrants, which they did not know were invalid.
Prosecutors also called attention to a curious incongruity in the defense motion — Morris' attorneys never acknowledge their client is actually in the video, and thus may not have standing to argue against it.
Laurence Rose, director of the litigation skills program at the University of Miami College of Law, said he doubted a judge would find the defense argument persuasive, since the traffic stop that preceded the video was reasonable and Morris was asked, and not ordered, to provide his personal information.
"He could have just said, 'I'm not telling you my name,' and it probably would have ended there," Rose said.
A jury found Morris guilty of first-degree murder earlier this year in a different 2010 shooting. He received a mandatory life prison sentence, but could face the death penalty if convicted of killing the officers.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.