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For Dontae Morris, unanimous jury recommends death

TAMPA — It took a jury less than an hour Tuesday to decide that Dontae Morris, 28, should pay with his life for the murders of two Tampa police officers.

The unanimous recommendation, which won't take effect until confirmed by Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente, concludes Morris' trial for the 2010 killings of Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab.

Last week, the same jury found Morris guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of escaping from custody.

The 12 jurors made their decision Tuesday after deliberating for 52 minutes. In Florida, juries can recommend the death penalty by simple majority, with only seven votes needed.

"The fact that they came back 12-0 says volumes about the viciousness of Dontae Morris' crimes — the fact that he didn't just kill two police officers but he killed others in the community," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said. "If there is an instance where the death penalty is applicable, this is it."

Earlier this year, Morris was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for an unrelated murder, and has two more cases pending — five alleged murders in all.

An alternate juror, who sat through the trial but did not deliberate on the verdict or sentencing recommendation, said Tuesday evening the state's evidence against Morris — particularly a police cruiser's dashboard camera video that showed the two officers being shot — was both "horrible" and convincing.

"It was like a slam dunk from the beginning," said James Grogan, adding that he would have voted both to find Morris guilty and recommend execution.

The trial judge must still formally sentence Morris and could decide to punish him with life imprisonment rather than execution. However, under state law, judges must give "great weight" to jurors' recommendation.

Fuente said he expects sentencing by March or April with a hearing Jan. 10 for the defense to present additional evidence.

If the judge agrees with the jury, Morris will take his place alongside 403 other inmates on Florida's death row. There he would wait for an executioner, aided by state Department of Corrections officials, to inject chemicals into his bloodstream that would render him unconscious, paralyze him and stop his heart.

Morris' death sentence would be subject to an automatic appeal process. Over the last four decades, a prisoner's average stay on death row before being executed has been roughly 13 years.

The jurors were selected from Orange County, which has seen less intense media coverage of the case. They were bused back to Orlando after delivering their decision just after 4 p.m.

Jurors reached Tuesday night by the Tampa Bay Times declined to comment.

At the hearing, jurors heard from prosecutors and defense attorneys about factors that, under state law, can be weighed for or against execution. Among the prosecution's "aggravating circumstances" were that Morris already has an earlier murder conviction, that his victims were on-duty law enforcement officers and that he shot the officers while trying to evade arrest.

"Law enforcement, on a daily basis, is the first line of defense of our democracy," Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner said in his closing argument. "The tragic irony in this case is that Officers Dave Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were killed during their protection and their enforcement of those constitutional freedoms and rights and protections that you have seen on display in this courtroom."

The jury found that Morris fatally shot both officers during a traffic stop on June 29, 2010. Prosecutors say he feared he was about to be arrested on a warrant.

Both officers' widows were given the chance Tuesday to address the jury, sharing stories of how their lives had changed after the night of the murders.

"Everything we do, from eating dinner, to going to church, has been altered," Kelly Curtis said. As a single mother, she said, she had to teach her 12-year-old son — one of four who lost their father — how to shave.

Not long ago, she said, one of her younger children saw a picture of her with her slain husband and asked, Mom, why is that man kissing you? "It broke my heart and brought me to tears that he had no idea that man was his father," she said.

Sara Kocab-Redmon, who has remarried, told the jury about how she was pregnant when Jeffrey Kocab was shot. Weeks later, she delivered the baby stillborn. "Almost a month after burying my husband, I buried our baby," she said.

Morris' attorneys argued he deserved mercy, in part because of what they described as a troubled upbringing. His mother was 16 when he was born and his father, David Morris, was murdered when Dontae was 2.

"It was very overwhelming," said Morris' mother, Selecia Watson. "I went through a phase where I shut down. I didn't want to be bothered with the baby."

Though he eventually dropped out of high school, Morris was a promising athlete and student as a young man, his mother said. He began his education at a private school because Watson's stepfather and mother "thought it would be good if he could have a head start in life."

Seated in the witness box, as the jurors who would soon sentence her son to death watched impassively, Watson brightened for a moment as she looked at a defense exhibit handed to her by one of her son's lawyers. It was a certificate a young Dontae Morris had received for citizenship when he was in elementary school.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

For Dontae Morris, unanimous jury recommends death 11/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 11:27pm]

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