TAMPA — Prosecutors' momentum slackened on the second day of the trial of Dontae Morris, the 28-year-old man accused of killing two Tampa police officers, as the riveting material the state presented the day before gave way to a flawed witness, circumstantial evidence and a call for a mistrial from Morris' defense team.
On Tuesday, the first day of testimony, prosecutors had shown jurors a police cruiser dashboard camera video that they said showed Morris fatally shooting Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a 2010 traffic stop.
On Wednesday, by contrast, the central figure in the state's case was Ashley Price, a 25-year-old felon who was having trouble getting her story completely straight under questioning by defense attorneys.
Price, who said she had dated and been a confidante of Morris in the summer of 2010, testified he told her over the phone on June 29 — about 10 hours after Curtis and Kocab were killed — that he had shot them. She testified Wednesday that he told her, "I did it," called the officers "Crackers" and said he had shot them to avoid being arrested.
But on cross-examination, defense attorney Karen Meeks prompted Price to acknowledge that she had been sexually intimate with Morris only once and had spurned him because he wasn't her type.
"Even though you weren't really dating him, and you only saw him one time, the two of you were really, really close," Meeks said. "Is that right?"
"Yes ma'am," Price replied.
Prosecutors also played for the jury an audiotape of Morris making a call from the county jail after his arrest, speaking to his half-brother and friends about his concern that Price was cooperating with detectives.
"I need you to make a few moves, man," Morris said. "They got people lying on me and stuff, you smell me?"
He added, "I hope she don't keep up with the foolishness … they got my life in their hands, you smell me?"
The tapes, combined with Price's testimony, led to a backlash from Morris' defense team.
His attorneys asked Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente to declare a mistrial, saying prosecutors had improperly presented evidence suggesting that Morris had directed associates to make threats to keep Price from testifying.
The matter arose after Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon questioned Price about financial assistance she received from police to move out of her old neighborhood. "Is that because of threats to you and your family?" Harmon asked.
Combined with Morris' phone calls from jail, defense attorney Byron Hileman said, the line of questioning gave the impression that Morris had orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against Price from behind bars.
"The jury has almost certainly drawn an inference that the threats that were referred to originated with Mr. Morris," Hileman told the judge outside the presence of the jury. "This trial has been contaminated, it's been prejudiced, in a way that simply cannot be cured."
(In 2011, the Times reported that jail officials did restrict Morris' phone privileges and visitors because of concerns about witness' safety.)
Fuente denied the mistrial motion but read the jury an instruction to the effect that all sides in the case agreed that "any reference to any suggested threat to Ms. Price … has nothing to do with Mr. Morris."
Visibly exasperated by the time devoted to issues surrounding Price's testimony, Fuente told the lawyers, "I think we spent entirely too much time with this witness over not important issues."
Other state witnesses Wednesday included Dr. Leszek Chrostowski, a medical examiner who said that gunpowder embedded in the skin of Curtis and Kocab indicated the officers had been shot from less than 2 feet away; and several Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputies who testified that Morris' distinctive, high-pitched voice, which they had come to recognize while he was in jail, was identical to the voice of the killer caught on video.
Testimony continues today.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.