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Jury sees jarring video as Dontae Morris murder trial opens

TAMPA — The two gunshots that killed Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab came close enough together to sound like one, a violent percussion like a pounding wave, and when the jury heard them replayed, one man almost jumped out of his seat.

Shock and outrage are words overused in the criminal courts, but jurors' outward reactions to a video authorities say shows murder defendant Dontae Morris killing the officers cannot be described otherwise. Some shuddered. Two shook their heads. One woman frowned and leaned forward in her chair, looking close to tears.

The record of the officers' last moments, caught on a police cruiser's dashboard camera, capped an emotional first day of testimony in the trial of Morris, who faces two charges of first-degree murder. Authorities say he shot the officers during a traffic stop shortly after 2 a.m. June 29, 2010.

The video — arguably the prosecution's strongest evidence — could not be seen, only heard, by courtroom spectators. It was shown on a screen turned only toward the jury. Yet even the sounds of the encounter brought to life what Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon called "what surely must be every law enforcement officer's worst nightmare: a vicious, brutal, determined killer. A killer who was so determined that it wouldn't matter what precautions these officers took."

Authorities say Morris, facing an arrest on a bad-check warrant, whipped a revolver from his pants and shot Curtis and Kocab in the head at close range.

As the two officers collapsed by the side of 50th Street, Harmon said, Morris was already "tripping and stumbling over their bodies, trying to get away" while the Toyota Camry driven by his ex-girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, squealed off into the night.

Curtis had pulled Brantley over for a missing tag. Morris was a passenger.

The first Tampa police officer to arrive on the scene after the shootings, Officer Steven Roy, described Tuesday how he found the officers' bodies splayed by the side of the road.

Or at least he tried.

"When I arrived, I crossed over, and I could see . . ."

Roy's voice thickened and he bowed his head. He paused for a long moment before continuing.

"They were both lying on their back."

Morris already has been sentenced to life in prison without parole for another murder. If convicted in the current case, he could be sentenced to death.

Testimony continues today in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

So far, Morris' defense team has offered only a thin argument to rebut the state's evidence, suggesting their client may be the victim in a bizarre case of mistaken identity.

The man caught on tape who looks like Morris, sounds like Morris and claimed Morris' name could have been somebody else, defense attorney Karen Meeks told jurors.

"On June 29, 2010, Dontae Morris' life, this person's life, was turned upside down," Meeks said. "He knew that there were multiple jurisdictions looking for a person named 'Dontae Morris,' and he knew that what can only be described as a manhunt was under way." She added, "His life was in danger."

Morris, a skinny 28-year-old with an unruly head of finger-length dreadlocks, sat placidly throughout the day at the defense table, slumped in his chair and wearing a brown dress shirt with no tie.

His demeanor did not change as Kelly Curtis, David Curtis' widow, took the stand and made a rare public utterance about the killings three years ago.

"Did you know Officer David Curtis?" Harmon asked.

"Yes, I did," Kelly Curtis said. "He was my husband."

Anyone expecting high drama was disappointed. Harmon asked her only to describe her husband's work routine and identify the small notebook that he was accustomed to using — the notebook in which the officer recorded Morris' name.

In quizzing her about small details — her husband's favorite notebook, the hours of his midnight shift — Harmon appeared to be fleshing out a paean to the responsibilities undertaken by police officers he had begun in his opening statement.

"While most of Tampa was asleep, they were out there," he said. "They were out there, protecting, serving and guarding."

The demands of these workaday duties, the video of the officers' killings showed, did not let up even as they lay dying.

In the quiet minutes following the shots, after the killer had sprinted off into the dark and Brantley's car had sped away, a police radio could be heard squawking. Something about a brick thrown through a window. Something about what a complainant was advising.

And then, overwhelming this chatter and ending routine for good, the panic of people who stumbled upon the scene:

"Oh my God."

"It's two of them."

"They're both down."

"He's leaking from his head."

"This man dead."

"That officer gone."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Jury sees jarring video as Dontae Morris murder trial opens 11/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 11:25pm]
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