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Jury finds Dontae Morris guilty in Tampa police officers' murders

TAMPA — There was no celebration outside the courtroom where Dontae Morris was convicted Friday night of killing two Tampa police officers.

There were no relieved embraces, no nervous laughter, none of the signs of relief and rejoicing, however small, that prosecutors and victims sometimes permit themselves when a trial has run its grueling course.

Instead, there was funereal silence, maintained by rows of stone-faced police officers in blue. In front of them stood Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, her eyes red, her posture stiff, speaking slowly and deliberately, seeming very tired.

"There's no verdict that is going to bring Jeff and Dave back or ease the pain of their loss, but tonight at least this verdict gives us some closure and just a little bit of relief," Castor said, squinting into the bright lights of a bank of television news cameras. She paused. "It's been a very tough week for all of us."

After deliberating for four hours, a jury found Morris, 28, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the fatal shootings of Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab in 2010, as well as a single count of escaping from custody. On Tuesday, the same jury is scheduled to hear additional arguments and evidence, then issue a recommendation for or against the death penalty to Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente.

The verdict of guilt was one many had expected, based on the strength of the state's evidence, and observers will be eagerly awaiting the jury's next decision on whether Morris should spend the rest of his life in prison or die by lethal injection. Castor suggested that in definitively establishing Morris' guilt, the most important milestone for the officers' colleagues and relatives had been passed.

"I believe that what everyone was looking for here was to say, once and for all, that he was responsible for the deaths of Dave and Jeff and he will never be a free person again," she said.

Kelly Curtis, speaking on behalf of herself and Kocab's widow, Sara, said she was gratified Morris would never be free again. A sob catching in her throat, she turned toward the Tampa police officers behind her. "To you guys, for being there to support us, to TPD — thank you," she said. "We couldn't have done it without you."

When the jury delivered its verdict, reached after four days of graphic evidence and emotional testimony, Morris — dressed in the collared, untucked shirt and loose khakis that were his unofficial uniform during the trial — showed no reaction.

Throughout the trial, he spoke only once, and then to announce that he would say nothing, when the judge questioned him on whether he wished to testify in his own defense. But it was Morris' own voice — a languid, childlike drone, the voice of someone with all the world's time and none of its worries — that helped lead to his conviction.

It was his voice that jurors heard in a recording, whining by phone to his lover from the county jail about her cooperation with investigators. Morris' voice a jail deputy overheard declaring he repented for killing. Morris' voice that was captured giving his name to Curtis in the early morning darkness on June 29, 2010, shortly before he shot both officers in the head.

Jurors found that Morris shot Curtis and Kocab when they tried to arrest him on a warrant during a traffic stop on 50th Street. He was a passenger in his girlfriend's car, which was pulled over for missing a tag. While the jury in this case does not yet know it, Morris has also been convicted in a separate murder and faces pending charges for two more, all in the summer of 2010.

The verdict came after closing arguments in which jurors saw, for the second time, the central piece of evidence in the case: a video of the officers' killings, captured on the dashboard camera of Curtis' police cruiser.

One reason it was so powerful — in addition to the intensely graphic moment of the shootings, which startled jurors both times they viewed it — was that Morris could be heard in the recording giving his full name and date of birth to Curtis in his distinctive, high-pitched tone.

"If you need any evidence of how ruthless and how brutal these murders were, this is it," Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said in his closing statement. "This defendant gave these two police officers no chance whatsoever. He drew them into his trap, and he executed them."

Morris' defense team, which argued throughout the week that he was on the wrong end of an extreme case of mistaken identity, had little with which to concretely rebut the state's case: no alibi, no witnesses of their own.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," defense attorney Byron Hileman said to Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, after the verdict was delivered.

"I knew it was coming," she replied, her voice somber but her eyes dry. "It was out of y'all's hands."

As Morris was hauled off by bailiffs, arms squeezed into handcuffs behind his back, leg shackles clanking, he had stared across the courtroom and let his gaze momentarily meet his mother's. Then he bit his lip, shook his head and was marched away.

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

Jury finds Dontae Morris guilty in Tampa police officers' murders 11/15/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 16, 2013 12:10am]

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