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Public defender won't represent Dontae Morris, but why?

For a lawyer, it would be hard to imagine a client less attractive than Dontae Morris, who is accused of gunning down two Tampa cops during a traffic stop.

The slayings of David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab — was it really only last week? — left a wake of grief and anger. There's little doubt the state will seek the death penalty.

Morris, however, won't be represented by the lawyer you might expect — the public defender, who represents defendants too poor to hire their own attorneys.

A public defender's job is pretty noble, if you believe the system only works if it's equal for everyone. Public defenders tend to be overworked, underpaid and unappreciated by their own clients, who sometimes call them "public pretenders." I admire them.

Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt's office is not representing Morris, however, because of its involvement with Cortnee Brantley, the young woman police say drove the car that night. And this is perplexing to me.

When more than one person is accused in a case, the public defender often represents one and declares a conflict of interest in the others, meaning other lawyers must be appointed. Your lawyer is supposed to represent your interests, which may not be the same as those of your fellow accused.

I asked Holt when her office represented Brantley — when police questioned her for hours while Morris was on the run and then let her go? Surely not later, when Brantley was charged, since that was in federal court and Holt's is a state office?

"We didn't say that we represented Cortnee Brantley," Holt said. She would only describe the situation this way: "There were certain actions we took as a result of her being taken into custody we were certain Mr. Morris would not appreciate," actions "inconsistent with advocating on behalf of Mr. Morris."

Yes, her policy is to take the "most culpable" defendant, she said, but in this case Brantley came up first. Morris is now represented by an office of lawyers known as the state conflict counsel, which some worry is spread too thin.

The quiet, lawyerly grousing I heard about this scenario reminded me of 1998, when Tampa police detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell were shot to death by a suspect with a hidden handcuff key.

The gunman killed himself. When his girlfriend was charged, Holt declared a conflict and said she couldn't represent her. Her office had raised money for the officers' families and marched to the police memorial. One longtime lawyer said he understood Holt's move emotionally, just not legally.

Holt said she is offended at any suggestion the decision to get off Morris' case was political or anything but ethical. Her office carries 14 death penalty cases, she says, and represents Humberto Delgado, charged with killing Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts last year.

But I am disappointed. She has top-notch lawyers. I elect my public defender for the worst of the worst, and I wish they had found a way to keep his case.

Maybe you're thinking: Who cares what kind of attorney we get for someone who kills cops? The answer lies with in anyone who has seen families suffer through year after year of retrials. The answer is that we should want the cleanest, most professional, most error-free trial possible, even for Dontae Morris. Especially for him. Because we do not want to do this again.

Public defender won't represent Dontae Morris, but why? 07/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 8, 2010 9:53pm]
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