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Circumstantial case outlined in Dontae Morris murder trial

TAMPA — Gerald Coleman had packed his DJ supplies and was walking out of the Cotton Club when he saw a lanky young man hold a gun to Rodney Jones' head.

Jones, 42, tried to elbow the gun away. Coleman saw a flash and heard a couple of pops. Jones fell to the ground. He was dead within seconds.

Coleman did not get a good look at the gunman. Neither did two women who were also outside the nightclub in the early morning hours of May 31, 2010. They all gave police a general description of a black man in a white T-shirt and dark pants.

That man was Dontae Morris, prosecutors say, a now-notorious Tampa man accused of this and four other 2010 murders, including those of two police officers.

Morris wanted retribution against Jones, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said in opening statements as the murder trial began Monday. He hinted at evidence the jurors would hear this week:

One Cotton Club patron picked out Morris from a pack of photos as someone who was in the area just before the shooting. Shortly after Jones' death, Morris sent a text message to his girlfriend to set up an alibi. And a friend of Morris' told police he had admitted to killing Jones.

But at the end of Monday's testimony, it was all circumstantial.

There are no DNA samples, no fingerprints, no license plate numbers connecting Morris to the fatal scene at the Cotton Club.

Investigators do not have a murder weapon.

"There is no physical evidence tying Dontae Morris to the scene of the crime — or the crime itself," his defense attorney, Byron Hileman, said.

This is the first of the murder trials for Morris, 27.

The 15 jurors, brought in from Orlando, do not know of the other cases. They are being sequestered and, by law, can learn only that Morris is wanted in this one death. They won't hear that he has also been charged in the fatal shootings of Derek Anderson, Harold Wright and Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab.

Prosecutors say Jones was shot during an attempted robbery outside the Cotton Club after spending the night inside with friends, during which he flashed a thick wad of cash. Morris, who is being held in jail, is charged with first-degree murder and attempted robbery and faces life in prison.

Though the prosecution's evidence is circumstantial, Harmon made a case Monday for it all adding up.

He told jurors about a series of text messages they'd hear about this week. According to the prosecutor, about an hour-and-a-half after Jones was shot, Morris texted girlfriend Cortnee Brantley.

"Listen if any thing foolish happens you and me spunt the night 2 gether in palm river …," Morris wrote.

He followed with a command: "Erase these after you read."

"He's trying to destroy evidence of the alibi (attempt)," Harmon told jurors. "Unfortunately it doesn't work like that. You're going to see those text messages."

Harmon also played a 20-minute recording of a phone call from March 2011 in which Morris tries to get a woman he calls "unrighteous" to visit him in jail so they can talk.

That woman, 24-year-old Ashley Price, had approached Tampa police nine months earlier to say that Morris told her he shot Jones, according to prosecutors.

In the phone call recording, Morris tells a friend that Price just needs to tell the truth.

"She's talking crazy," Morris tells his friend.

The state plans to call Price as a witness this week. She'll be in a bright orange uniform because she is in jail for unrelated reasons. It will be up to jurors to weigh her credibility, Hileman said in his opening statement.

On Monday, jurors also heard from Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Ruben Clemente, who watched Morris for several hours on Nov. 15, 2011, while Morris was incarcerated at the Falkenburg Road Jail. Clemente wrote down everything Morris said in his cell that day.

According to the deputy, that included: "I repent for killing."

Killing whom?

Morris didn't say Jones' name, or Cotton Club or the date of the shooting, Clemente testified.

"He never said anything about how the 'killing' occurred?" defense attorney Christopher Boldt asked.

No, the deputy replied.

"He never said anything about the type of weapon? … About a gun, the caliber of gun? Or whether there was a knife?"

No, the deputy replied to each.

"Or who pulled the trigger?" Boldt asked.

The deputy paused.

"Well, he said 'I repent for killing,' " Clemente said. "He said 'I.' "

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Circumstantial case outlined in Dontae Morris murder trial 03/11/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 12:06am]
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