TAMPA — A judge has ruled that prosecutors can show jurors in the upcoming murder trial of Dontae Morris a video depicting the brutal killing of two Tampa police officers.
In an order issued Thursday, Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente denied a motion by defense attorneys to exclude the video from evidence at the trial, which is scheduled to take place in November.
Morris' lawyers had argued that the man captured in the video (they never acknowledged he was Morris) was unlawfully detained as a passenger during the June 2010 traffic stop that preceded the killings.
As a result, they asserted, video footage of the man shooting Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab — captured by a police cruiser's dashboard camera — was illegally obtained evidence.
Fuente rejected that reasoning, stating in his order that Morris was not illegally detained, just questioned about his identity. Authorities say Morris shot the officers in the head after he told them his name and they found he had warrants for his arrest on charges of writing bad checks.
It later turned out the warrants were bad, but that did not matter, Fuente said, since the officers were acting in "good faith" based on the information they had.
"Morris was free to not answer questions and was free to leave," Fuente wrote.
"The fact that the warrants were later determined to not be active and invalid based on check charges that had been dismissed does not affect the legality of the officers' actions in stopping the vehicle, talking with Morris, requesting identification, checking for warrants, then ordering him out of the car to detain or arrest him," the judge added, "and in no manner justified Morris' actions as he got out of the vehicle."
Fuente's ruling deflects what could have been a serious blow to the prosecutors' case. The video of the shooting is arguably the state's most compelling evidence against the 28-year-old Morris.
"We made our arguments. The court has made its ruling. And we accept that," Byron Hileman, Morris' lawyer, said Thursday. "It may well be an issue on appeal" after the trial, he said.
The video was already played in a separate case against Cortnee Brantley, Morris' ex-girlfriend, who was driving the car. Brantley was pulled over for driving without a license plate.
Earlier this year, a jury convicted Morris of first-degree murder in another 2010 shooting. He was sentenced to life in prison, but could be sentenced to death if found guilty of killing Curtis and Kocab.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.