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Dontae Morris' girlfriend being retried on rare charge

Dontae Morris is charged with murdering Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis in 2010.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2012)

Dontae Morris is charged with murdering Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis in 2010.

TAMPA — It will be a replay of one of Tampa's most tragic events.

Cortnee Brantley, 24, of Seffner, the girlfriend of a man accused of killing two Tampa police officers in 2010, will be back in a federal courtroom today to be retried on a charge that she failed to fully help investigators during the manhunt for her beau.

Jurors deadlocked during her first trial in July, so a judge declared a mistrial.

It was the early morning of June 29, 2010, when Brantley's boyfriend, Dontae Morris, killed Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis after a traffic stop on 50th Street because of a missing license plate, prosecutors say. Morris was a passenger in the car, which was driven by Brantley.

Curtis discovered a warrant for Morris' arrest on a bad check charge and called for backup. Morris, who had been questioned previously in a murder investigation, may have thought he was being arrested in that case instead.

Prosecutors say he pulled a gun and shot the officers in the head as he exited Brantley's Toyota Camry.

Morris ran from the scene, triggering the biggest manhunt in Tampa history. He was captured after four days and awaits trial on first-degree murder charges.

Brantley fled in her car. Prosecutors have not argued that she had any advance knowledge of the shooting.

The killings were caught on the dashboard camera in Curtis' cruiser, and jurors were shown the video at Brantley's first trial.

Brantley refused to identify Morris as the person responsible for the killings during questioning by police. That led investigators to charge her with an obscure federal crime called misprision of a felony — failing to report a felony to authorities.

Surprisingly, the shooting of the officers is not the felony Brantley is accused of failing to report. It's that Morris was a felon with a gun and ammunition. But to win a conviction, prosecutors must prove Brantley took steps to conceal that information from police during their investigation of the shooting.

Jurors at the first trial appeared confused by the charge and asked for a definition of the crime during eight hours of unsuccessful deliberations. Jurors declined comment afterward.

Neither Brantley's attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., nor prosecutor James Preston would comment for this article. The families of the officers, who attended the first trial, have previously declined to comment while the case is pending.

Irvin argued at the first trial that police knew Morris' identity within minutes of arriving at the scene and didn't need Brantley to identify him. Irvin said Brantley drove away because she was afraid of Morris.

Irvin has portrayed Brantley as a convenient scapegoat in a case charged with emotion.

Prosecutors said Brantley didn't fear Morris at all, noting Brantley called Morris' cellphone within seconds of the shooting.

"I think the rarity of charge illustrates how desperate the government is to obtain a conviction on her," said defense lawyer John Trevena, who has no ties to the case. "They want justice for the officers who were killed. There's not going to be any quarter given to (Brantley) at all. No mercy."

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody had dismissed the charge against Brantley in October 2010, saying prosecutors could not prove that Brantley tried to conceal any felony being committed by Morris. But an appeals court later reinstated the charge, saying Moody had dismissed it before hearing evidence at trial.

Moody seemed close to dismissing it again during the trial, but in the end, he allowed the case to go to the jury.

The judge had said the fact that Brantley refused to identify Morris as the person who killed the officer was not enough, by itself, to convict her. Prosecutors, he said, most prove an act of concealment.

Misprision of a felony is a charge that traces back to England in the 1300s.

John V. Hurd, a Massachusetts lawyer, said in a 2008 Suffolk University Law Review article that misprision of a felony is related to the ancient duty of English citizens to "raise a hue and cry" upon witnessing a crime in the days before police forces.

In English common law, the responsibility was limited to men between the ages of 15 and 60.

Potential jurors in the retrial will no doubt be asked by lawyers whether they saw any of the media coverage of Brantley's mistrial.

The judge has barred the news media from sitting in the courtroom during jury selection, citing a lack of space. Instead, reporters would watch those proceedings remotely by video.

The Tampa Tribune filed a motion Jan. 7 seeking access to the courtroom during jury selection, noting that access to court had also been restricted during other parts of the trial.

Moody denied the motion.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com.

Dontae Morris' girlfriend being retried on rare charge 01/13/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 13, 2013 7:51pm]
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