TAMPA — Video has proved a powerful force in the criminal justice system, helping both prosecutors and defense lawyers cut through the lies or foggy memories of witnesses, suspects and police.
But as Dontae Morris goes on trial today in the killings of two Tampa police officers, the video evidence that is central to the case will likely serve a single role: pointing, perhaps inescapably, to Morris' guilt.
Several legal experts interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said that a police cruiser's dashboard camera video of a man who appears to be Morris shooting officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab will be a major obstacle for defense attorneys.
Some of the tactics typically used to persuade a jury to ignore the camera's tale — challenging footage as incomplete, out of context, or inadmissible on constitutional grounds — do not seem to apply to the grisly video of the officers' killings, the experts say.
"It sounds like they don't have a lot of good options," said Jennifer Zedalis, a former criminal defense lawyer and professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.
Last week, Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente selected a 12-person jury after four days of questioning prospective jurors in Orlando, where fewer people have been exposed to media coverage of the case.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will present opening statements in the case today. Fuente says he hopes the trial will conclude by Friday or Saturday. If the jury delivers a guilty verdict, they will then have to decide during a second phase whether Morris should be executed.
Curtis and Kocab pulled Morris' then-girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley, over for a tag violation on June 29, 2010. After the officers learned Morris' name, they discovered he had a warrant outstanding — the warrant, for a bad check, was later found to be invalid — and asked him to step out of the car.
When Curtis asked the man to put his hands behind his back, he removed a handgun from his waistband and shot Curtis and Kocab in the head. The whole confrontation was captured by a cruiser's dashboard camera.
"It's the worst thing I've ever seen," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said. "I told all the members of my department: Unless you have some investigative reason to see it, don't watch it."
Morris' attorneys argued in the run-up to the trial that the video was inadmissible for various reasons, all of which Fuente rejected.
Zedalis said the fact that the entire encounter with the officers was recorded makes it difficult to argue, as some defendants have in other situations, that they acted in self-defense against provoking actions that were not caught on video.
Tamara Lave, a former public defender and professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said attorneys have sometimes argued that incriminating video evidence violates a defendant's constitutional right to confront his accuser. That doesn't apply for Morris, she said, because the officers were questioning him about a warrant unrelated to the crime for which he was eventually charged.
"The police were asking questions completely unrelated to the murder investigation, because of course they weren't dead yet," Lave said.
Another reason the video seems to be ineluctable evidence of the crime is that Morris is recorded telling Curtis his name — going so far as to spell it out — in the moments before the shootings. That weakens one possible argument defense attorneys have sometimes deployed to battle video evidence of a crime — that a defendant is not the person in the recording.
It's still a tactic Morris' attorneys have given signs they might use. During jury selection, defense attorney Chris Boldt asked potential jurors if they "think people can have look-alikes."
That could be a clue to the best chance Morris' attorneys think he has of avoiding a guilty verdict and possible death sentence: asserting to the jury that the man who looks like Morris and claims his name in the 2010 video is, in fact, somebody else.
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.