Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Judge heads to Orlando to find jurors for Dontae Morris' murder trial

TAMPA — It was the fifth and final murder authorities connected to Dontae Morris.

He already had been accused of gunning down a young father, a drug dealer and two Tampa police officers, all in 2010.

Then authorities added Rodney Jones, a 42-year-old personal trainer and marijuana dealer. Police say Morris shot him during an early morning robbery on May 31, 2010.

In less than a month, Morris, then 24, would turn his gun on Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, according to Tampa police. Those deaths will be detailed during a later trial.

On Monday, it's Jones' turn.

It will be the first murder trial for Morris, who faces life in prison if convicted, and Jones' family is ready. "We're one step closer to closure," said his sister, Daphne Stephens.

• • •

Circuit Judge William Fuente already tried to launch this trial once.

In August, attorneys whittled a jury pool from 200 to 70 people who said they were not familiar with the charges against Morris.

Then jurors admitted some in the group had gossiped about the defendant.

Fuente sent them all home.

To be safe, this time he's heading to Orlando to find jurors.

That starts today. Testimony will begin in Tampa on March 11.

If jurors follow the rules, they won't know about the other charges Morris faces. They won't know that Morris is accused of shooting the two police officers in the head, both at close range. They won't know that he faces the death penalty in the police deaths.

They won't know he's accused of leaving 11 children without fathers.

• • •

Rodney Jones grew up in West Tampa with four siblings. He had two children of his own, and grandchildren.

He also has a list of arrests in his past, mostly drug charges. His years in prison taught him to enjoy life when he was out. He was goofy, had a loud laugh and loved celebrating, his sister, Stephens, said.

Jones threw a big birthday for himself the February before he died. It fell on Super Bowl Sunday that year, so he turned on the game, served barbecue and baked beans and invited more than 100 people.

Christmas morning brunch isn't the same without him, so his sister stopped hosting it each year.

She saw his body on the pavement, the gunshot wound to his neck. Jones was her superhero, a larger-than-life mythical creature, so Stephens asked police to pull back the white sheet. She had to see him to believe he was gone.

"I needed to know this was my new reality," she says.

Stephens later learned what happened.

According to witness accounts, on May 31, 2010, a group of young men watched Jones at the Cotton Club.

He flashed a thick roll of money, peeling off bills for karaoke singers. Sometime during the night, he divided his cash between two pockets.

When he left about 2:30 a.m., two of the young men followed him.

"Give it up," someone heard outside.

Police found him dead next to his 1995 Mercedes, one pocket inside-out, the other stuffed with $2,565.25.

As the sun rose outside the Cotton Club on May 31, 2010, firefighters used their hoses to wash blood off the streets. Soon, people started talking.

Dontae Morris told a friend about the shooting, a woman later told police.

A different woman, who had been at the club, picked Morris' face out of a photo pack. He was there that night, she said.

And police intercepted a text message.

Morris had texted a young woman named Cortnee Brantley, a woman who had visited him in prison when he was serving time for selling cocaine — the same woman police say was with Morris on June 29, 2010, when he allegedly shot the two officers.

"Listen if any thing foolish happens you and me spunt the night 2 gether in palm river since 7 at nite," he wrote.

No response. Seconds later, he texted again:

"Erase these after you read."

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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