Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Video evidence of murders a high hurdle for Dontae Morris defense

The trial of Dontae Morris begins today in Tampa.

Associated Press

The trial of Dontae Morris begins today in Tampa.

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 pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Video evidence of murders a high hurdle for Dontae Morris defense 11/11/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 8:43am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Good to be bad? Dirk Koetter's call for bold, brash Bucs

    Bucs

    Is being a badass team all about swagger and toughness? "Our whole thing is about competing," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter says. (Loren Elliott | Times)
  2. St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill

    Water

    ST. PETERSBURG — The city has put the legal fallout from the sewage crisis behind it.

    Signs at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg warn people in September to stay out of the water due to contamination from partially treated sewage from the city's overwhelmed sewer system in September 2016. The city recently learned that no employees will face charges as a result of that crisis. The St. Petersburg City Council also agreed to spend $326 million fixing its sewer system. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  3. Epilogue: Tony Scaglione served Ybor delicacies and laughs

    Obituaries

    Tony Scaglione's childhood dream was to own his family's restaurant.

    Tony Scaglione - the longtime owner of Tony's Ybor Restaurant - has died.  He was 87. Credit: Larry Scaglione
  4. What you need to know for Friday, July 21

    News

    href="http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2015/graphics/macros/css/base.css"> Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during minicamp this summer. He said the Bucs could be "a bad--- football team." [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  5. Final sign positions should cut danger where trail crosses interstate ramp

    Roads

    I am concerned with the yield signs I saw recently installed for the new bike and pedestrian trail along either side of Roosevelt Boulevard between Carillon Parkway/28th Street and Interstate 275. These yield signs seem to be pointing to the drivers, one side as they exit the interstate northbound, the other as they …