Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

So far, 23 out as jurors in Dontae Morris police murder trial

ORLANDO

As jury selection began Monday in the double murder trial of Dontae Morris, one factor above all was shaping the 12-person panel that will decide his fate: The men he is accused of killing wore a badge.

The murder of a police officer, like the murder of a child, casts a long shadow. That shadow is extending over the earliest stage of the trial of Morris, who is charged with gunning down Tampa officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab in a 2010 traffic stop.

Among the 23 prospective jurors excused from duty Monday, a number said they simply could not sit in judgment of a stranger accused of killing police.

Some were related to police officers; some had been police officers. Their fear, in different guises and degrees, was that they might find Morris guilty no matter what the evidence showed.

"He deserves a fair trial," said one potential juror, who was excused after telling Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente that his father is a police officer. "I just don't think I'm the best option."

"I don't know the gentleman," another said, glancing at Morris, a slight 28-year-old with a crop of stiff dreadlocks sprouting from his head. Morris, flanked by lawyers and slouched in his chair at the defense table in a buttoned burgundy shirt and no tie, watched without expression.

"I don't have anything against him," said the prospective juror, a retired police officer. "But yes, I believe I would be prejudiced."

He, too, was excused.

Morris is already serving a life term without parole after he was found guilty earlier this year of killing a man outside a Tampa nightclub. In addition to charges of killing the officers, he has charges pending in two more killings — five in all — during the summer of 2010.

Jury selection for the police-killing case is taking place this week in Orange County, where Fuente hopes to find a pool of jurors less tainted than those in Hillsborough County by the case's intensive media coverage.

The judge's stratagem is working, though not perfectly. Among the first 50 potential jurors polled on their knowledge of the case, almost 20 had heard about it, mostly through news reports.

A number of those were the same who had special connections to law enforcement. After hearing protestations from potential jurors about how the victims' identities might warp their sense of fairness, Fuente felt obligated to remind one that mere distaste for the murder of an officer is not enough.

"Nobody likes homicide. Nobody likes a police officer being shot," the judge said. "If you are asked to be a juror, there are certain legal and constitutional principles you have to follow. And if you can't, you can't. That's what we have to find out."

Seated in the second-story gallery, accompanied by several plainclothes officers, Sara Kocab and Kelly Curtis — the slain officers' widows — watched intently.

Jury selection is expected to last at least several days, and perhaps the rest of the week. On Monday, the jury and alternates will be taken to Tampa, where they will be lodged under guard in hotel rooms for the duration of the trial. Fuente said arguments and testimony in the case will begin Nov. 12 and should take less than a week, concluding by Nov. 16.

If Morris is convicted, the jury must hear arguments during a second, sentencing phase on whether he should be executed. That stage would take place back in Orlando, Fuente said.

In light of the case's unusual time and travel demands — as well as the heavy responsibility of possibly deciding on a death sentence — many jurors tried Monday to beg off. Some had better excuses than others.

"My son has just been diagnosed with asthma," said one woman.

"How old is he?" the judge asked.

"Forty-nine," she replied.

She was not excused.

Tampa criminal defense lawyer Joe Episcopo, who is not involved with the case, said the trial's combined inconvenience and moral demands would have many potential jurors racking their brains for excuses.

"Let's just say that you're going to get quite a few that are not going to want to sit on this jury," he said.

Later this week, during a process that, in an ominous twist of legal jargon, is called "death qualification," potential jurors will answer specific questions about their philosophical views of capital punishment, and their capability to sit on a jury that could vote for Morris' death.

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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