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Parents win tug of war over son's defense attorney in New Tampa attack on bicyclists

Mikese Morse attends a pretrial detention hearing Friday in Hillsborough Circuit Court. He is accused of Intentionally swerving off the road June 24 and killing a father riding bikes with his two young sons on New Tampa Boulevard. During the hearing, Morse said he no longer wanted a public defender to represent him and instead would like private attorney James Smith to take up his case. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Mikese Morse attends a pretrial detention hearing Friday in Hillsborough Circuit Court. He is accused of Intentionally swerving off the road June 24 and killing a father riding bikes with his two young sons on New Tampa Boulevard. During the hearing, Morse said he no longer wanted a public defender to represent him and instead would like private attorney James Smith to take up his case. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Jul. 6, 2018

TAMPA — After a behind-the-scenes quarrel over who would represent the man accused of running down and killing a New Tampa father, the defendant told a judge Friday morning that he wanted a private attorney, not a public defender.

Standing shackled in a red jail uniform, with chains hugging his waist, Mikese Morse said he wanted attorney James W. Smith III to handle his defense.

Circuit Judge Gregory Holder reminded Morse that he had the right to choose his attorney.

"Yes, I do," Morse said. "And my decision is Mr. James Smith."

Assistant Public Defender Mike Peacock agreed to withdraw from the case but reiterated concerns about the fragility of Morse's mental state.

Since last week, Peacock and Smith had quietly disputed who would handle Morse's defense.

Morse's parents selected Smith, an Orlando attorney. But Peacock said in court Friday that Morse repeatedly told him he was satisfied with the services of the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office.

That apparently changed Thursday night, when Smith was able to meet with Morse for the first time.

The judge let both attorneys speak with the defendant again separately before the start of Friday's hearing. Afterward, both agreed that Morse said he wanted Smith to take the case.

Morse was driving along New Tampa Boulevard on June 24 when he saw Pedro Aguerreberry on a bike path with his sons, 3 and 8. Morse made a U-turn, tore across a swath of grass and ran into the trio, Tampa police said.

The father died, the younger boy suffered a broken leg, and the older boy had minor injuries.

After their son's arrest, Michael and Khadeeja Morse spoke publicly about his struggles with mental illness. Less than two weeks before the fatal crash, Morse went to a police station and told an officer he feared he might hurt someone, while rambling incoherently. He was committed for a mental health assessment under Florida's Baker Act.

His parents said Morse was held at Gracepoint, a mental health treatment facility, for a week. But, they said, he was still in a psychotic state when released.

After Friday's hearing, they once again directed blame for what happened at Florida's mental health system, reiterating that they had tried for years to get their son adequate help.

"My son will be the sole defendant in this case," Khadeeja Morse said through tears. "But it's the mental health system and our legislators that should also be on trial. Because it's the failures of the mental health system that allowed this to happen."

Smith, standing beside her, mentioned a set of videos that Morse posted on social media shortly before and after the fatal crash. In them, Morse speaks about the devil having power over him and "energies changing" inside him.

The lawyer said they are the best evidence in his favor.

"No one who watches those videos even for a short period of time can come away with any conclusion other than you have an individual who's suffering from a very serious mental illness," Smith said.

"This is not a story of someone who woke up one day and decided he was going to kill someone. This is a sad story of someone who has been battling mental health issues for several years."

Morse's next court date is July 13.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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