TAMPA — Dontae Morris is accused of killing five people in 2010 — including two Tampa police officers — but there are still many in Hillsborough County who apparently have never heard of him.
On day one of the first of four trials Morris faces on murder charges, nearly 80 of 200 potential jurors said Monday they either have heard nothing about him or recognize his name only vaguely. That was a surprise to one would-be juror who was discharged after telling attorneys, "If you live in Hillsborough County, you have to know his name."
But it means prosecutors have a chance of fielding 12 impartial jurors this week, avoiding a change of venue sought by Morris' attorneys.
In this trial, Morris, 26, is accused of fatally shooting Rodney "Scarface" Jones, 42, during an attempted robbery on May 31, 2010, outside the Cotton Club in West Tampa. He is charged with premeditated first-degree murder, but prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in this case.
Investigators say Morris tried to rob Jones after he saw him flash money inside the club. Jones was found beside his car, shot in the neck, one pocket turned inside-out, the other stuffed with $2,500.
Most jurors who had heard of Morris were more familiar with the charges that he murdered Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis on June 29, 2010, during a traffic stop of his girlfriend, Cortnee Brantley.
Earlier this month, a federal attempt to prosecute Brantley on a charge she knew Morris was a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition —but didn't tell authorities — ended in a mistrial.
On Monday, about four dozen potential jurors were discharged after they connected Morris to the slain police officers. Most of them also recognized Brantley's name.
None of the jurors mentioned two other murders Morris is charged with — those of Harold Wright and Derek Anderson in robbery attempts,
All of Monday was devoted to essentially one issue: jurors' exposure to pretrial publicity. Attorneys didn't finish. Dozens more potential jurors will be questioned about that today.
Those jurors who survive the questioning on pretrial publicity will then be subjected to possibly two more days of questions about their ability to be impartial, their own experiences with crime and the courts, and whether they can sit through a trial expected to last two weeks. On Monday, about a dozen other jurors were dismissed mostly for health reasons.
Morris, wearing a mustard-colored shirt and tie, sat through it all impassively. He showed no reaction when prosecutors brought forth Ashley Price, a former girlfriend, who is expected to testify that Morris told her about shooting Rodney Jones.
Told that Price hadn't been cooperating with prosecutors, Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente warned her that she would have to show up to testify, possibly on Friday.