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Tampa police chief asks for public's trust in cop-killings investigation

TAMPA — For seven hours, police questioned Cortnee Brantley after she drove away from the spot where two Tampa police officers lay dying in the street.

Police then released the 22-year-old from custody with no charges filed. Police Chief Jane Castor understood the public's frustration.

Her response: Trust us. Investigators could have charged Brantley with a crime, but decided not to. She would not say why.

Defense lawyers interviewed Wednesday said that based on the facts that have been made public, Brantley may have not committed a crime.

"They can't just arrest somebody because the person they were with did something horrible," said lawyer Stephen Romine. Driving off "might be immoral, but it isn't necessarily illegal."

Brantley was in the driver's seat early Tuesday when Officer David Curtis pulled her over for not having a visible tag. Brantley's passenger, Dontae Morris, 24, gunned down Curtis and Officer Jeffrey Kocab before fleeing on foot.

Lawyers said Brantley's mere presence during the shooting wasn't a crime, and her decision to leave the scene likely wasn't either. Perhaps she drove away in fear for her life, the lawyers speculated.

"The crime takes place when he pulls the trigger," Romine said. "The question is, did she aid him in somehow doing the murder before or after?"

Both Castor and Mayor Pam Iorio acknowledged the community's frustration that police let Brantley walk away.

"You can't help but have a problem with it as a person. Everybody does," Iorio said during a news briefing, but she firmly added that she agrees with TPD's decision.

Lawyers suggested that maybe police are using Brantley to get to Morris, who remained at large late Wednesday.

Castor said investigators got information from Brantley during the seven-hour interview, but she wasn't particularly cooperative. Castor would not detail Brantley and Morris' relationship.

The chief said the decision to let Brantley go was made after consulting with prosecutors and "for the good of the investigation."

"There is a distinct possibility she'll be charged down the road," Castor said without elaborating on those potential charges.

Citing the pending investigation, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office would not comment on Brantley's possible charges, either.

Lawyer Eddie Suarez envisioned two possible scenarios.

In one, Brantley was a casual acquaintance who didn't know of Morris' criminal background or that he had a weapon. When he got out of her car and shot the officers, she panicked and drove off.

"In that scenario, she's clearly an innocent citizen," Suarez said.

But, "if he says, 'quick, hand me the gun' and she does, that's a different scenario," Suarez said.

If that was the case, or if Brantley helped Morris escape or hide, she could be charged as an accessory to murder, the lawyers said.

Castor said investigators have no reason to believe Brantley and Morris reunited after the shooting.

Defense lawyer Rick Terrana said a prosecutor could argue that Brantley aided Morris by driving away, preventing cops from talking to her or obtaining evidence from the vehicle. That's why it's important for Brantley to stay in "good graces" with the authorities, Terrana said.

"She is a critical witness in the prosecution of this guy," he said.

Also, Terrana said it's possible police are using Brantley to find Morris.

"You've got to assume she knows where he hangs out, who his friends are," he said. "There's no need to arrest her right now and throw her in jail."

When asked whether police were watching Brantley, Castor said, "we've got eyes on a lot of people." She said the risk that Brantley would flee was "minimal."

Neighbors at the Bristol Bay Apartments complex where Brantley was found in Unit 202 on Tuesday said they saw Brantley return, barefoot, late at night. A reporter's knocks on that door Wednesday were not answered.

Before the shooting, Morris had also been seen at the complex, neighbors said, but they didn't know his relationship to Brantley.

There have been other cases where women involved with men who shot police to death were put behind bars.

In 1998, Bernice Bowen was arrested after her boyfriend Hank Earl Carr shot Tampa police Detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell and Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James B. Crooks.

The two detectives had arrested Carr but he freed himself with a hidden handcuff key and shot them while in the patrol car. He later shot the trooper on a highway exit ramp. Carr killed himself later.

The Carr incident began after Carr shot Bowen's 4-year-old son in the apartment Bowen and Carr shared.

Bowen was first charged with child abuse because she left her children with Carr, a felon wanted in several states.

But police said because Bowen did not immediately tell police Carr's real name, that he was known to be violent or that he sometimes carried a handcuff key, she was charged with accessory-after-the-fact to first-degree murder and accessory-after-the-fact to Carr's escape.

Bowen was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum.

In 2001, Nestor DeJesus and his girlfriend, Paula Gutierrez, robbed a South Tampa bank and fled. DeJesus fatally shot pursuing Tampa Officer Lois Marrero before he and Gutierrez holed up at the Crossing Apartments.

DeJesus killed himself. Gutierrez surrendered and was convicted of felony murder, armed robbery and armed burglary.

Gutierrez's lawyer claimed the woman was in fear of her life. But Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced Gutierrez to life.

Tampa police chief asks for public's trust in cop-killings investigation 06/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 9:02am]
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