TAMPA — Almost a decade ago, two Tampa police officers were murdered.
A city grieved. A legion of cops hunted a killer and demanded justice. A jury would later see video of the officers shot in their heads as they attempted to arrest a man during a traffic stop. The same panel decided the killer should be executed.
This month, a crack opened on the past and out popped death row inmate Dontae Morris. He returned to the Hillsborough County Jail just before noon on Aug. 1. He brought with him hopes of a new trial in the slayings of Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab.
Lawyers for Morris are set to present evidence in a Tampa courtroom this week as they try to persuade a judge that his first trial was not a fair one.
They say a key witness against Morris lied, that the jury was tainted by video images of the aftermath of the shootings, and that the trial attorneys failed to present evidence concerning Morris’ mental state.
The effort is a long shot. The state’s highest court has previously upheld Morris’s convictions and death sentences. But the hearing will feature some new arguments and testimony that might look like a trial.
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.
Morris, now 33, was the subject of the largest manhunt in Tampa history in the four days that followed the June 29, 2010, slayings of Officers Curtis and Kocab.
At 2:13 a.m. that day, Curtis stopped a red Toyota Camry that had no license tag. The car pulled over on the southbound side of 50th Street, just north of Interstate 4. The driver was Cortnee Brantley. In the passenger seat was Morris.
The dashboard camera in Curtis’ patrol car captured the officer’s brief conversation with the pair. When asked his name, the passenger could be heard saying, “Morris … Dontae … D-O-N-T-A-E … M-O-R-R-I-S.”
Curtis scribbled down the name and Morris’ birth date on a notepad, and returned to his car. When he ran the name through a police database, he discovered Morris had an active warrant for writing bad checks.
He called for backup. Kocab arrived. The two officers walked to the car’s passenger side. Curtis told Morris he had a warrant and asked him to step out. Morris rose, as though he was going to comply. But he quickly drew a gun and shot both officers.
He then ran off. Brantley sped away.
The officers lay dying before passersby saw them a few minutes later and dialed 911. Both men were declared dead at Tampa General Hospital.
A confidential informer later brought Morris to a South Tampa law office, where he was delivered to police in exchange for $90,000 in reward money.
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Key to the state’s case was the testimony of Ashley Price, a one-time girlfriend of Morris who testified that Morris spoke with her in the hours after the shootings and confessed to killing both officers.
But lawyers for the office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates, say they have two witnesses who can testify that Price lied. They argue that she was pressured to cooperate with police and prosecutors to secure a conviction.
The lawyers have also challenged the decision to let jurors see portions of dashboard camera video in which panicked officers try to revive their colleagues. And they question Morris’ death sentences, arguing that his trial lawyers failed to adequately probe his background and upbringing.
What’s more, the new appeal rehashes findings from psychological experts that were presented to a judge but not the jury. These experts found that Morris has a below-average IQ and “borderline intellectual functioning."
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New evidence includes the results of brain scans Morris underwent while on death row. The exams revealed signs that he may have suffered a brain injury, according to his appellate attorneys.
“The flaws in the system which sentenced Mr. Morris to death are many,” they wrote in a court paper. “These errors cannot be harmless. The results of the trial and sentencing are not reliable.”