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Cortnee Brantley case leaves a legacy of misgivings

What a legacy there is in this week's official conviction of Cortnee Brantley, who did not shoot two Tampa police officers in a case a judge said hung "by the thinnest of legal threads."

What Brantley did the night police say her boyfriend, Dontae Morris, killed two good cops — or maybe what she didn't do — was drive off after the gunshots as the men lay dying, and later refuse to say Morris' name to investigators, though they already knew it was Morris they were looking for.

What she did, or did not do, was reprehensible and unforgivable, and it's not hard to get the fierceness with which many in this city wanted her prosecuted. Tampa lost two of its own, men who were just doing their jobs, working the midnight shift, arresting a guy who turned out to be wanted during a routine traffic stop. What happened on that roadside left families shattered and a city grieving. Tampa wanted her to pay for what she did and did not do.

Was it a crime? No. Hills­borough's state attorney could not find one on the books. But then the feds stepped in with the obscure "misprision of a felony" charge, a crime that even longtime lawyers had to look up. We learned this is the crime of knowing a felony was committed, not reporting it and doing something to conceal it.

But here is the detail easily forgotten in the terrible scene captured on dashboard video and later shown to jurors: Brantley was not accused of knowing about and concealing the murders of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. She was accused of knowing her boyfriend was a felon who had a gun and ammunition, which is illegal, and concealing that crime.

Confused?

The case was tenuous enough to get thrown out by U.S. District Judge James Moody, only to be reinstated by an appeals court that said he should have ruled only after hearing the evidence in the trial. The charge was complicated — what, exactly, had she done to "conceal" any knowledge that he was a felon who illegally had a gun? — and the first jury could not reach a verdict.

The feds tried again and the second jury said guilty. It fell to Judge Moody to consider the jury's explanation that phone communication between Morris and Brantley afterward equaled "concealing" and decide if the conviction would stand.

No one can accuse him of bowing to public pressure, anger and grief, which would have him burying Brantley under the jail. No one who read his order could say he didn't consider every nuance of how the jury connected the dots to get to guilty.

Had it been a civil trial, he wrote, the verdict would have been set aside.

Criminal is different. The jury could have believed text messages about Brantley moving her car equaled concealing, he ruled. And so, "by the thinnest of legal threads," he wrote, the verdict stands.

At Brantley's sentencing April 29, expect a cry for a maximum prison sentence, because she did not do what a decent person would have done, what she should have done. Except that's not a crime, even if we think it should be, something to take up with lawmakers.

So here is the sobering legacy of the Cortnee Brantley case: This is not how our justice system is supposed to work, the end justifying the means, even if we believe she is guilty of something.

Cortnee Brantley case leaves a legacy of misgivings 02/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 8:49pm]

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