Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Investigation of fired Tampa detective could affect Brantley appeal

TAMPA — A federal grand jury investigation of fired Tampa police Detective Eric Houston has not yet produced a criminal charge, but the inquiry already has made its way to an appeals court, where a cop-killer's former girlfriend seeks to overturn her 2013 conviction.

Questions about the credibility of Houston — "a key government trial witness" in the case against Cortnee Brantley — could affect Brantley's appeal, her attorney told the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in a motion filed Friday.

Houston supervised the crime scene after Dontae Morris gunned down two officers during a traffic stop in east Tampa in 2010. Brantley, the driver, was sentenced to a year in prison for failing to tell police Morris was a felon with a loaded gun, but she's free on bail during the appeal.

Brantley's attorney, Grady Irvin, now wants the court to extend to Monday a deadline for filing his appellate brief.

He said Houston was the first law enforcement officer to speak with Brantley.

Authorities have not disclosed the nature of the grand jury investigation of the veteran Tampa police detective, who was dismissed Thursday.

But Irvin cited news reports this week in which Tampa police Chief Jane Castor called the detective's conduct "criminal" and "egregious."

"If the conduct of the detective reflects on his credibility, including, but not limited to, the credibility of his duties as a homicide detective, this could possibly impact the underlying case and the initial brief of (Brantley)," Irvin wrote.

Brantley was convicted under a rarely applied federal charge called misprision of a felony.

When U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. adjudicated her guilty, he did so only after a three-week analysis of the jury's decision. He ultimately concluded that the guilty verdict was plausible "by the thinnest of legal threads."

In his order, Moody said the jury may have decided that Brantley took affirmative steps to conceal herself and Morris from law enforcement by hiding her car after she left the scene of the shootings.

Houston's testimony during the trial related to the discovery and location of Brantley's car, which he said was found backed into a parking space at an apartment complex, about 500 yards from where she was found.

In announcing her decision to fire Houston, Castor said the department has 19 open cases that he helped investigate, including three in which he was the lead detective. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is evaluating each of those cases to see whether Houston's testimony is needed to prosecute.

As Tampa's designated cold-case investigator, he was responsible for digging into some of the agency's most puzzling and high-profile mysteries. In 2011, he helped secure DNA samples that led to the identification of Peggy Sue Houser, whose remains were found off Sligh Avenue in 1982 but were unidentified for almost three decades.

A defense attorney who dealt with Houston on numerous criminal cases described the detective as "diligent, truthful and thorough."

"He wasn't a boisterous or powerful personality," Tampa defense attorney Brian Gonzalez said. "He wasn't the kind of guy you'd see in the hallway and it's like, 'Oh, here comes Eric Houston!' He was always quiet, respectful, to the point."

In 1996, when he was still a patrol officer, Houston and a colleague shot and killed a man who tried to fight with another officer. A subsequent investigation found the officers acted properly.

Houston of Riverview is married to La Joyce Houston, a 16-year Tampa police veteran who was fired last year based on welfare fraud allegation. Police said they had caught her conspiring to use a jail inmate's food stamps, a charge that led the agency to investigate to her husband. Though Tampa Police Department investigators found no connection between Houston and his wife's alleged fraud, they did find evidence that he was involved in illegal activities, Castor said.

The 24-year veteran had spent a decade as a homicide detective, after working his way up from street patrol, public housing, and narcotics.

In 2007, Houston was interviewed by a Tampa Bay Times reporter about his enthusiasm for solving seemingly unsolvable cases.

"People think they can get away with something," Houston said then. "And then you show up on their doorstep."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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