TAMPA — Tampa Bay area residents know Dontae Morris as a violent young man whose outbursts, according to police, left a startling body count in the summer of 2010.
But when Morris goes to trial next month on charges of killing two Tampa police officers, jurors will be given an incomplete version of that portrait.
That's because Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente, in a move many had expected, ordered this week that prosecutors cannot present evidence at the upcoming trial of two additional killings for which Morris has been charged.
In a two-page ruling, Fuente stated that he would grant the motion in the absence of any objections from the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. Defense attorneys had argued that evidence related to the two pending murder cases would prejudice the jury when it decides whether Morris is guilty of first-degree murder in the 2010 killings of police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. If convicted in that case, Morris could receive the death penalty.
In court papers filed in June, Morris' attorneys said evidence from the other murder cases was "irrelevant," "prejudicial," and "probative only of the defendant's bad character and propensity to commit crimes."
Morris already has been found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 42-year-old Rodney Jones, and as a result is serving a life prison sentence. In that case, Morris was convicted of killing Jones in what detectives said was retaliation for an earlier robbery. Fuente did not permit jurors in that case to hear about the other murder cases.
While it is not specifically mentioned in Fuente's order, Byron Hileman, an attorney for Morris, said prosecutors have told him they will not seek to inform jurors about his client's conviction in the first of the five murders he is accused of committing. That conviction could still become a factor in the trial's sentencing phase if Morris is again found guilty.
In the November trial for the killings of Curtis and Kocab, jurors will not hear about accusations that he also killed Derek Anderson and Harold Wright in May and June of 2010, respectively, according to the judge's ruling. Authorities say Morris fatally shot the police officers during a traffic stop because he thought they were arresting him for Anderson's murder.
Joe Episcopo, a Tampa criminal defense attorney, said accusations of other crimes typically only are presented in trials when they can demonstrate a strong pattern of criminal behavior. For example, such evidence frequently plays an important role in the prosecution of serial sex offenders, he said.
In the trial for the police kilings, however, such a pattern isn't necessary, Episcopo said, noting the strength of the prosecution's evidence. The shootings were captured on videotape, which will be shown to jurors.
"This is not a whodunit," Episcopo said. "There's no need to risk anything in this case. It's videotaped."
Morris' trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 4. Jurors will be bused to the courthouse in Tampa from the Orlando area because of the risk that a local jury pool would be prejudiced by media coverage of the case.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.