Sunday, May 20, 2018
News Roundup

Forensics evidence takes center stage as Dontae Morris trial winds to close

TAMPA — Prosecutors are expected to rest their case today in the trial of Dontae Morris, the man accused of killing two Tampa police officers.

Unless Morris decides to testify in his own defense — an unlikely development, but not impossible — attorneys will then make their closing arguments and one of Tampa's most heavily publicized murder cases in recent years will go to a jury for deliberation.

Morris, 28, is charged with the murders of Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis. Prosecutors say he fatally shot the officers during a traffic stop in 2010. If the jury delivers a guilty verdict, they will decide next week whether to recommend to Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente that Morris be executed.

On Thursday, the third full day of testimony in Morris' trial, the state's most compelling evidence had already been presented, and prosecutors focused on hearsay and small-bore forensic evidence that — while doing little to establish Morris' guilt — was intended to show the jury that a diligent investigation of the killings was performed.

In the morning, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Ruben Clemente said he overheard Morris say "I repent for killing" while he was incarcerated at the Falkenburg Road Jail after his arrest.

However, Clemente said he heard no specific reference to Curtis or Kocab.

Morris has been charged in five slayings and was already convicted in one of them, the killing of Rodney Jones, earlier this year.

In that trial, Clemente also testified about the overheard statement.

"I recall him saying that he repented for killing, that's all," Clemente said Thursday.

Jurors also were presented with records of text messages between Morris and his ex-girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, on the night of the killings. Prosecutors say Brantley was driving the car that Curtis pulled over just before he and Kocab were shot.

"I love u with my last breath," reads one text sent from Brantley's phone less than 20 minutes after the murders. "Yea just lean bak stay loyal," came the reply from the phone allegedly belonging to Morris. "Of course… Til death do us part," Brantley then wrote. The response from Morris' phone: "Yea im out with love."

Forensics analysts testified Thursday but could offer little to bolster the state's case. A Tampa Police Department fingerprint expert said she found no prints that could be traced to Morris in the car Brantley was driving.

Likewise, an analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said she could not match DNA samples from the passenger side of Brantley's car to Morris.

This doesn't mean he wasn't there; only that he didn't leave an intact, traceable sample of his DNA in the car.

Prosecutors say Morris was a passenger in Brantley's car when it was pulled over for a tag violation.

He then shot Curtis and Kocab when they tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant, according to authorities.

Brantley, 25, was sentenced in June to a year and a day in prison after a jury found her guilty of an arcane federal charge, misprision of a felony, for failing to warn authorities that Morris was a felon with a gun.

However, she is currently free as she appeals her conviction.

So far, the state's most powerful evidence against Morris was presented on the trial's first day: the police dashboard camera video that shows a man who looks and sounds like Morris shooting Curtis and Kocab in the head just after 2 a.m. on June 29, 2010.

The video includes footage of the man telling Curtis his first and last name — even spelling it — before the shootings.

Morris' attorneys have suggested in their opening statement and questioning of witnesses that their client was the victim in an extreme case of mistaken identity.

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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