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Trial opens with two competing versions of Cortnee Brantley

Cortnee Brantley heads into federal court Monday morning for the start of her trial.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Cortnee Brantley heads into federal court Monday morning for the start of her trial.

TAMPA — Jurors must choose between the two faces of Cortnee Brantley.

One is the face of evil. This is the Brantley prosecutors say saw her boyfriend shoot and kill two Tampa police officers and then vowed she would never rat him out. She is the person who callously fled the shooting without calling for medical help.

The other is the face of a hardworking college student caught up in events not of her making. That is the Brantley presented by her attorney — the woman who did not see the shooting and did not know her boyfriend had killed the officers.

Brantley's trial on a federal charge of failing to tell police that boyfriend Dontae Morris was a felon with a gun and ammunition began Monday with jury selection and opening statements in a case charged with emotion.

Morris is accused of killing Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis the early morning of June 29, 2010.

Curtis had stopped Brantley's red Toyota Camry because it did not have a license plate. Morris, her passenger, is charged with killing the officers as they tried to arrest him on a warrant.

It took just over three hours to select a jury. Many potential jurors in a pool of 57 knew little of the case even after two years of extensive publicity. Many live outside the Tampa Bay area, including people in Sarasota and Polk and Manatee counties.

In many ways, Brantley's trial is more complex than the eventual first-degree murder trial of Morris in state court. Morris' act, after all, was captured on a police cruiser's dashboard camera, prosecutors say.

To convict Brantley, federal prosecutors must prove to a jury of eight women and four men that she did more than simply witness a crime. They must show she worked to conceal the crime by fleeing the scene and refusing to fully cooperate with police.

Brantley, 24, of Seffner, who studied psychology as a Hillsborough Community College student, faces up to three years in prison if convicted. The trial is expected to end this week.

"During this trial, you will learn about choices," prosecutor James Preston Jr. told jurors. "The defendant chose to turn her back on the community and on the people who protect her in her community … in favor of a cold-blooded cop killer."

Preston said Brantley sent a text message to Morris shortly after the killings, saying, "Til death do us part." That, Preston said, was her vow to Morris that she would not cooperate with police. She later indicated to detectives she loved Morris.

"Til death do us part," the prosecutor said, wasn't some vow made in a church, but was instead "an unholy promise."

And it was a promise she kept as she refused repeatedly during police questioning to identify Morris as the person who killed the officers, Preston said.

Brantley's attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., said Tampa police already knew Morris' identity before they ever got the chance to ask Brantley. Irvin said a computer check by Curtis before the shooting even urged caution in dealing with Morris because he had formerly resisted police.

Irvin's first task is to put as much distance between the dead officers and his client as he can. He reminded jurors that police do not accuse his client of being an accessory to the murders.

Nobody accuses Brantley of having forewarning of how her boyfriend might lash out.

"Two families lost two loved ones," Irvin said in his opening statement. "Someone lost a father. Two people lost husbands. That's what the evidence is going to show. … It has nothing to do with Cortnee Brantley."

Brantley, he said, could not have seen the shooting from her position in the driver's seat. After Morris fired, he fell to the ground, Irvin said.

"She took off not knowing who had been shot or who fired those shots," he said. "She didn't even know the police had been shot."

His client, Irvin said, did not conceal anything from police. Despite more than 100 questions asking her for the killer's identity, he noted, "They knew who Dontae Morris was the minute they arrived at the scene."

He added, "This is a case all about emotion, that two police officers unfortunately lost their lives and we want to get everybody either … on our team or we're coming after you."

By day's end, Preston prepared to show jurors what everybody involved agrees will be the most disturbing piece of evidence — the dash cam video showing the traffic stop and shooting.

Family members of the officers left the courtroom rather than view it. Several jurors looked unsettled as someone on the prosecution team attempted to load the video on a laptop for display on a large screen. It would be the first showing of the tape in court.

For more than five minutes in a perfectly hushed courtroom, they tried to load the video to no avail. Three or four times, an error message rang in an incongruously bright tone on the laptop.

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody finally ended the tension by asking Preston if the trial should end a half hour early so the problem could be fixed overnight and the video shown to jurors first thing today.

"That would be most helpful," the prosecutor said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com.

Trial opens with two competing versions of Cortnee Brantley 07/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 16, 2012 10:57pm]
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