Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Jury finds Dontae Morris guilty of murder

TAMPA — Dontae Morris is guilty of first-degree murder, 12 jurors decided late Wednesday.

Not for the slayings to which he's most notoriously connected. A trial on the fatal shootings of two Tampa police officers will arrive another day.

On Wednesday, it was 42-year-old Rodney Jones' chance for justice. And after 5 1/2 hours, the jury found Morris guilty of premeditated murder in Jones' death outside the Cotton Club bar in West Tampa on May 31, 2010.

Morris now faces a mandatory life sentence.

"Thank you, Jesus," Jones' sister, Daphne Stephens, whispered in court after the verdict.

Jurors also found Morris, 27, guilty of attempted robbery and felony murder, meaning he killed Jones while a felony was being committed.

This was the first of four murder trials for Morris.

It wasn't the highest stakes. He faces the death penalty in the officers' deaths.

And it arguably was not the strongest case. There was no forensic evidence tying Morris to the scene of Jones' death: no fingerprints, DNA samples or surveillance video.

The state made a case built on bits of evidence that fit together, each piece corroborating the others, according to Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon.

What is the likelihood, Harmon asked jurors during closing arguments Wednesday, that two women would independently identify Morris as someone at the Cotton Club the night Jones was shot, and that Morris would try to set up an alibi later that morning — and would later confess the murder to a friend?

Defense attorney Byron Hileman argued that jurors should weigh the credibility of that friend, Ashley Price.

She is a felon and may have had other motives, Hileman said, such as trying to get a lighter sentence for criminal charges she faced.

"Obviously, that can form a motive for providing misleading information," Hileman said.

Jones was shot in the neck outside the Cotton Club after spending the night inside with friends.

According to authorities, Morris had been waiting for Jones. Morris was mad that Jones had previously robbed him.

The jurors did not know that Morris is facing additional charges in the other cases. Circuit Judge William Fuente made sure of that, going to Orlando to find an untainted jury, then sequestering them for several days in a Tampa hotel during the trial this week.

The judge thanked them for enduring the hassle, then let them go.

It was about 9:30 p.m., and, with the jury out of the room, Fuente asked if any of Jones' family members wished to speak. They get the chance to address the court before sentencing, which will be set later.

Daphne Stephens walked toward the lectern.

Without tears, she asked the judge to ensure Morris gets life in prison.

"If he spends eternity plus one day, that's still not enough to fill the void he left in my family," she said.

Stephens saw her brother lying on the concrete that dark Memorial Day morning. He left two children and two grandchildren.

"We put our pets down with more care and more love than my brother was taken from this world," she said.

Stephens thanked those involved. She could finally start to heal, she said.

From the courtroom benches behind her, Stephens' husband and uncle listened to her words.

And so did a woman who might understand Stephens better than most:

Kelly Curtis, the widow of slain Tampa police Officer David Curtis, who police say Morris shot along with Officer Jeffrey Kocab on June 29, 2010.

She came for the closing arguments and waited for the verdict.

As they left the room, Stephens' tears came. Then she hugged Kelly Curtis, who smiled and said: "You did good."

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