Jury finds Cortnee Brantley guilty, but judge waits

TAMPA — A jury of 12 peers decided Wednesday that Cortnee Brantley committed a federal crime while trading phone calls and text messages with Dontae Morris in the minutes after the fatal shootings of two Tampa police officers.

Guilty, the jury said.

Not so fast, came the response from U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr.

The judge did not take the routine step of formally adjudicating Brantley guilty. It's unclear whether he will.

Skeptical from the outset of the charge against her, he reserved the right to rule on pending motions. They include a motion for acquittal, which her attorney renewed in a filing late Wednesday. A hearing has not been scheduled.

Brantley, out on bail, left the courtroom without a sentencing date. She did not comment.

Morris — her boyfriend, captured after the largest manhunt in city history — awaits trial on murder charges.

After Wednesday's verdict, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor walked up Florida Avenue to the courthouse and spoke with the widows of slain Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis. When she emerged, she said they were satisfied with the jury's decision.

"As we have stated all along, what Cortnee Brantley did that day was wrong," Castor said. "She was there when two of our officers were murdered in cold blood and she did nothing to assist them. In fact, she aided the killer in his escape, putting our entire community in jeopardy for four days."

As for the absence of a formal finding of guilt, the chief said it is in the court's hands. "We have to respect that process," she said.

Jurors deliberated 5 1/2 hours.

Twice during the trial, they saw a police dashboard camera video that captured the June 29, 2010, shootings at an East Tampa traffic stop. The video showed Brantley at the wheel of a Toyota Camry. Her passenger identified himself as Morris. Officer Curtis questioned Brantley about a missing tag before approaching the other side of the car with Officer Kocab.

After Morris rose from the Camry, the officers fell to the ground, each shot in the head.

Brantley fled in the car and Morris left on foot, but police uncovered evidence that the two immediately began communicating by phone and text message. They traded texts about her car's location and needing to move it.

Those exchanges formed the basis for the jury's decision that Brantley was guilty of "misprision of a felony," a seldom-tried charge that alleged she knew Morris was a felon with a firearm and ammunition and committed an "affirmative act of concealment" to hide that from law enforcement.

The charge is rife with nuanced legal requirements, explained in court to the jury. For the concealment to occur, intent is required. But intent alone is not enough. The plan has to be executed.

Nor was it enough for jurors to return a simple verdict of guilty. They had to specify the act of concealment they saw.

The jury wrote:

"The defendant knowingly and willfully concealed her knowledge of the possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon from the authorities by coordinating via phone calls and text messages with Dontae Morris."

But Moody, after a bench conference with attorneys, wanted to know more. He sent jurors back to consider whether they should attempt to clarify the statement or leave the wording unchanged. The jurors met briefly and returned with their wording unchanged.

"We just agreed to leave it where it is," juror Telesforo Valle told the Tampa Bay Times.

Valle, a Temple Terrace landscaper on his first jury, was disappointed to learn the verdict was imperiled. "A little," he said, "because that's the whole process of a jury: deciding guilty or not."

The latest motion for acquittal, filed after the verdict, suggests what might have been missing from the jury's finding.

"(I)t appears that the jury determined that, at best, there was nothing more than a coordinating of a possible plan to conceal," defense attorney Grady C. Irvin Jr. wrote in the motion.

Criminal defense lawyer Jeffrey G. Brown, an adjunct law professor at Stetson University, characterized Wednesday's developments as unusual.

"In 25 years, I've never heard of a judge — when a jury comes back with a verdict — not finding that person guilty," he said.

Brown has no connection to the case. He happened to be outside the courthouse while news reporters were seeking clarity about what happened.

He said Moody is "obviously not happy with what they (jurors) have factually decided the concealment was."

He wasn't surprised by Moody's response, he said, because the judge has expressed concerns all along about the appropriateness of the charge.

Moody had dismissed the charge, but it was reinstated on appeal. Then a jury deadlocked, so it was tried a second time with a different jury this week.

"I'm surprised the jury did come back guilty because I think that this was a troublesome case all along," Brown said.

News researcher John Martin and staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

James S. Moody Jr.

• President Bill Clinton nominated Hillsborough Circuit Judge James S. Moody Jr. for a federal judgeship on June 8, 2000.

• Moody attended college and law school at the University of Florida. He became a civil trial lawyer, a certified public accountant, a director of Hillsboro Sun Bank and, in 1987, president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association.

• He was a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge from 1995 to 2000.

• His most high-profile cases on the federal bench include the terrorism trial of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian; the drug conspiracy trial of reggae singer Buju Banton; and the bribery trial of former Tampa Housing Authority director Audley Evans.

• Moody, 65, is from Plant City. His father, James S. Moody Sr., was a circuit judge and legislator. His daughter, Ashley Moody, is a Hillsborough circuit judge.

Sources: U.S. District Court, Times archives.

Jury finds Cortnee Brantley guilty, but judge waits 01/16/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 11:33am]

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