Dontae Morris gets life sentence for murder outside Cotton Club

TAMPA — Dontae Morris' mother did not ask for leniency. With a conviction of first-degree murder, her son faced a certainty of life in prison.

Still, Selecia Watson wanted to speak during his sentencing Friday morning. She wanted to tell the family of Rodney Jones, the man her son killed outside the Cotton Club in 2010, that she was sorry.

"They have lost someone they care deeply about," Watson said. "For that, I apologize from the bottom of my heart."

Morris looked away as his mother spoke. She kept her address brief, noting there were more trials ahead.

Circuit Judge William Fuente then sentenced Morris to life in prison with no possibility of parole. The most notorious man in Tampa will not rejoin society, no matter what happens in his remaining four murder trials.

Morris is accused of killing five men, including two Tampa police officers, during a two-month span in 2010. This was the first murder trial.

After deliberating for about five hours last week, a jury found Morris guilty of shooting Jones on May 31, 2010.

Three years was enough time for Jones' sisters to find forgiveness.

It was enough time for smiles to return to the widows of slain Tampa police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis. The women sat together in court Friday.

Sara Kocab, who gave birth to a stillborn daughter in July 2010, a month after she lost her husband, is remarried and pregnant. Her baby is due next month.

After three years of court hearings, Morris' mother approached Jones' sisters outside the courtroom and gave each an embrace.

The two sisters, like Watson, are open about their Christian faith. Daphne Stephens and her sister Lasonja Houston told the judge that prayer has helped them forgive Morris. They also pray for Morris' family — and for Morris, they said.

Stephens said regardless of what Morris admits to publicly, she hopes he is honest with himself, with God and with his young son.

"Because you don't want a young man growing up with the impression that law enforcement did his father wrong, that the justice system did him wrong," Stephens said.

That could start a cycle of bitterness and resentment, she said.

Morris did not speak Friday. Judge Fuente said he understood; there are pending murder cases.

The next one could arrive in the fall.

After Morris was sentenced, the lawyers and Fuente discussed scheduling the trial on the police officers' deaths for November.

Kocab and Curtis were shot at close range during a traffic stop on June 29, 2010. The murder was captured on a police dash camera, and police quickly named Morris as their suspect. He was arrested after a four-day manhunt.

Morris faces the death penalty in that case.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Dontae Morris gets life sentence for murder outside Cotton Club 03/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 11:35pm]

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