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Prosecutors weigh whether to try Cortnee Brantley again

TAMPA — A judge declared a mistrial Wednesday when a jury deadlocked in the case of a woman who fled and then refused to identify her boyfriend after prosecutors say she saw him "execute" two Tampa police officers.

The 12 federal jurors deliberated more than eight hours over two days before telling the judge they were unable to reach a verdict in the trial of Cortnee Brantley, 24, of Seffner.

The late-afternoon impasse was actually the second time jurors told U.S. District Court Judge James Moody they were deadlocked. The first time, Moody told them to try again.

But less than three hours later, jurors sent a note to Moody saying they were still unable to agree on a unanimous verdict.

"This is a difficult case," Moody told the jurors, never asking them how many had voted for conviction or acquittal. "This can certainly happen."

The widows of slain Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab sat in the courtroom among family members and supporters as the mistrial was declared, then left the courthouse without comment.

Brantley, whose boyfriend, Dontae Morris, is charged with the killings, stared straight ahead without saying a word as she left the building and reporters peppered her with questions. She got into a waiting car and drove off.

Her attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., said simply, "The case is not over."

Indeed, it may be far from finished. Prosecutor James Preston Jr. refused to tell reporters if Brantley will be retried. But a retrial appeared likely, given Preston's quick answer when the judge asked how much time he needed to make a decision.

"I don't need any time, judge," said Preston.

Moody gave him until Monday anyway. U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill later said his office was evaluating the case.

None of the jurors would speak with reporters as they left the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. So details of their deliberations and the reasons for the deadlock remain unclear.

Jurors included two nurses, a doctor at a veterans hospital, a construction worker and a baker, among others. They were selected as the trial opened Monday with warnings that their job would include the unsettling task of watching a police cruiser's dashboard camera video of the shooting.

Brantley was never accused of any foreknowledge of that June 29, 2010, shooting and is not charged in the officers' deaths. But that haunting video was nonetheless the focus of the trial.

It shows Curtis stopping Brantley as she drove a Toyota Camry with no license plate. As the officers tried to arrest Morris, her passenger, on a bad check warrant, police said, he shot and killed them, running away as Brantley sped off in the car.

Her attorney said she did not know Morris had a gun, and suggested she fled because she was afraid of him. Prosecutors said that was untrue, noting she called Morris' cellphone less than a minute after the killings.

Jurors began deliberations Wednesday with their second viewing of the video in a cleared and locked courtroom.

The video is tightly controlled and filed as evidence under seal. Prosecutors have said the family is concerned that it does not appear on the news or YouTube.

But as clear-cut as the video appears, at least some jurors appeared confused by the obscure charge Brantley faced — misprision of a felony. It involves a failure to report a crime.

They asked the judge several questions in deliberations about the charge, including which crime she is accused of not reporting.

The answer surprises many — it is not the shooting. It is that Morris was a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition.

To convict Brantley, prosecutors must show she knew Morris was a felon with a gun and ammunition and failed to report that to authorities. But she also must have taken steps to conceal the information from police.

Prosecutors point to several acts of concealment:

Brantley fled the scene of the shootings, which disturbed the crime scene and deprived investigators of evidence. They said she also refused to identify Morris as the shooter to detectives.

In October 2010, Judge Moody had dismissed the charge, saying, "These acts do not demonstrate that Brantley concealed anything having to do with the crime of Morris' possession of a firearm and ammunition."

But an appeals court sent the case back for trial, saying it was improper to dismiss the charge before the judge heard any evidence at trial.

On Tuesday, Moody appeared ready to dismiss the case again after testimony ended. The judge had some of the same reservations he had expressed in 2010.

But Moody delayed a ruling, allowing the jury to deliberate. He said the removal of the car from the scene is the only act that might allow her conviction.

That is because there is testimony that by removing the car, a police dog was denied a scent of Morris that could have been obtained from a car seat, thereby possibly allowing his escape. Morris was captured after a four-day manhunt.

Even with the mistrial, Moody could still grant a motion to acquit Brantley, now that he has heard the evidence.

Staff writers Sue Carlton and Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.

Prosecutors weigh whether to try Cortnee Brantley again 07/18/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 19, 2012 12:34am]
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