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Jury: Dontae Morris is guilty of fourth murder

Published Jul. 30, 2015

TAMPA — Dontae Morris faced his third jury in as many years on Wednesday, and they rendered the same verdict as the first two: he was found guilty of first-degree murder, this time for the fatal shooting of Derek Anderson in May 2010.

Anderson died 42 days before Morris shot and killed Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, the crime that made him one of the area's most infamous killers. In all, Morris has been convicted in four of the five murders he is accused of in 2010.

The jury in the Anderson case deliberated more than 14 hours over three days before delivering their verdict on Wednesday afternoon.

But in a strange twist, the jury also found that Morris did not possess or discharge a firearm — a finding that Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente said was "factually inconsistent" with the crime they convicted him of.

That's because Anderson was killed by a gunshot to the back.

The discrepancy prompted defense attorneys to seek a new trial.

"It simply is inconsistent," said attorney Byron Hileman. "It raises issues of the sufficiency for the factual basis for the verdict."

Despite that unresolved legal issue, the court moved forward with the sentencing phase. Starting today, the same jury will decide whether Anderson's murder should net Morris his second life sentence — or his third death sentence.

Anderson, 20, was killed on May 18, 2010, as he toted a backpack full of clean laundry to his mother's east Tampa apartment. Prosecutors argued that Morris killed Anderson after learning that he had been selling marijuana in the what Morris considered his territory.

No matter which sentence the jury recommends, Morris is already fated to die behind prison walls. In Florida, juries can only recommend death sentences. It is up to judges to impose them.

Morris is already serving a life sentence for the May 31, 2010, murder of Rodney Jones. He is also serving two death sentences for shooting and killing the police officers on June 29, 2010. He is awaiting his last murder trial for the June 8, 2010 death of Harold Wright.

Throughout the Anderson murder trial, the judge and attorneys took pains to shield the jury from knowledge of Morris' connection to the four other homicides.

Jury selection took almost as long as the trial itself. The judge and attorneys on both sides had to weed out potential jurors who had knowledge of Morris' past crimes. The prosecution and defense also sparred to keep evidence of the other killings from tainting the jury's decision in the Anderson case.

Prosecutors believe that the same gun Morris used kill the officers was also used to shoot Anderson 42 days earlier. But Fuente said that the jurors could learn only that Morris fired two other bullets from a gun on June 29, 2010. The jury never learned that those bullets killed two police officers.

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A Florida Department of Law Enforcement ballistics expert testified that the bullet that killed Anderson and the two bullets fired 42 days later came from the same gun. The weapon that authorities believe was used to kill Anderson and the officers was never found.

Jurors will learn more about Morris' past crimes when the sentencing phase begins. But they will still be barred from learning that he is on death row.

When Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon argues that Morris should receive a third death sentence this week, he plans to use Morris' past felony convictions as an "aggravating circumstance." For the first time during the Anderson trial, the jury will learn about the slayings of the two officers.

The issues raised by the jury's inconsistent verdict on Wednesday will not be addressed until after Morris is sentenced.

Hileman said the defense will file two motions with the court, asking the judge to either acquit their client of the murder conviction or to grant Morris a new trial.

University of Florida law professor Jennifer Zedalis said the defense could have a strong argument if the verdict somehow negated a necessary legal element of the first-degree murder charge. However, she said case law suggests that factually inconsistent verdicts are permissible in Florida. Possession of a firearm is not a legal element of the crime of first-degree murder, Zedalis said, so the discrepancy might not matter.

"The only time an inconsistent verdict would totally negate the trial is when one element (of the verdict) negated an element of a charge," Zedalis said. "It could be that this is sort of a washout and it won't matter."

But even if Fuente denies the defense motions, the inconsistent verdict is still likely to be used in higher courts to appeal Morris' murder conviction in the death of Anderson.

For now, the verdict stands and was welcomed by Anderson's family.

His mother, Wanda Gilchrist, shed tears outside the courtroom.

"It was a long time coming," she said. "I'm full of joy right now. … I got the verdict that I wanted to hear."

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