TAMPA — Six years ago, Ashley Price testified that Dontae Morris called her the day after the slayings of two Tampa police officers and said he had shot the “crackers” during a traffic stop.
The testimony was a key piece of evidence against Morris during his 2013 trial for the murders of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
Now Price’s testimony is in the cross-hairs of Morris’s new defense attorneys as they try to convince a judge this week that Morris deserves a new trial because his first one was unfair.
The lawyers for the office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates, contend that Price lied, that the jury was tainted by video images of the aftermath of the shootings, and that Morris’s trial attorneys failed to present important evidence that could have swayed the jury, including information about his mental state.
In the hearing that began Monday and continued Tuesday, Morris’s attorneys tried to undermine Price’s credibility, presenting evidence aimed at casting her as a liar motivated by $95,000 in reward money and a desire to land a lenient sentence for her own criminal charges that were pending at the time.
When Price took the stand Monday, defense attorney Ann Marie Mirialakis peppered her with questions about what motivated her to drive to the Tampa police station on June 30, 2010 — the day after the murders — to tell detectives about Morris’s confession and then cooperate as a witness for the prosecution three years later.
Mirialakis noted that Price faced a recommended prison sentence of more than six years for violating probation on three felony charges, but the case was continued until after Price testified in Morris’ hearing. She was ultimately sentenced to five years of probation.
“Miss Price, were you ever told by your attorney, the state, anybody, that testifying against Dontae Morris could help you get a lesser sentence?” Mirialakis asked.
"No, ma'am," Price answered.
"Did you hope it would help?"
Morris, now 33, was the subject of the largest manhunt in Tampa history in the four days that followed the June 29, 2010 murders. A reward of $95,000 was offered for his capture. Price did not receive reward money but testified during Morris’ 2013 trial that that Tampa Police Department helped her with moving expenses after she was evicted.
Another question from Mirialakis foreshadowed likely testimony from James Baird, a former boyfriend of Price’s, who is expected to testify that she told him she made up the story about Morris calling and confessing.
“Have you ever told James Baird that Dante Morris never actually confessed to you?” Mirialakis asked.
“No, ma’am,” Price replied.
Whether Baird, who is in jail on unrelated charges, will actually testify as planned on Wednesday was cast into doubt Tuesday when Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon played a jail call recorded Monday night between Baird, Mirialakis and co-counsel Ali Andrew Shakoor.
In the call, Mirialakis and Shakoor can be heard telling Baird how Price testified earlier in the day. Baird replied that her account is untrue.
“She told me it was a lie,” Baird replied.
Disclosing to Baird how Price testified tainted him as a witness, Harmon told Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco. Harmon said he would file a motion seeking to disqualify Baird as a witness in the hearing.
The proceedings are slated to resume Wednesday morning and conclude Thursday. A separate phase focused on Morris’s mental health is scheduled for October.
In addition to the officer killings, Morris was convicted in the separate murders a few weeks earlier of Rodney Jones and Derek Anderson.
He received a life sentence for killing Jones, and a third death sentence in Anderson’s murder. The sentence in the Anderson case was later overturned because the jury was not unanimous in its recommendation for capital punishment. Prosecutors have not said whether they will seek a new death sentence in the case.