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Dontae Morris’ attorney: Detective’s probe affects sentencing

Attorneys representing Dontae Morris, convicted of killing two Tampa police officers, have filed a motion to continue their client’s sentencing hearing because one of the detectives who testified against Morris is the target of a federal grand jury investigation.

The motion is the second filed since it was revealed in April that federal officials were investigating longtime Tampa police detective Eric Houston, who was fired last month. The attorney for Courtnee Brantley, who was driving the car when Morris killed two officers nearly four years ago, also has said that he might ask that the case against his client be stayed because of the investigation into Houston.

Houston was a homicide investigator who worked on some of the city’s more publicized cases, including those involving Morris, Julie Schenecker, currently on trial in the shooting deaths of her two children, and David Earl Williams, accused of killing University of Tampa student Ryan McCall in a 2009 robbery.

Houston was placed on administrative leave the day the police department was notified of a federal probe, and was fired April 24. The focus of that investigation remains a mystery. Police Chief Jane Castor said he “did not deserve to wear the uniform,” and characterized his actions as “egregious.”

Defense attorney Byron Hileman filed a motion Friday to continue a scheduled May 30 sentencing hearing for Morris, who was convicted in November of fatally shooting Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a traffic stop in 2010. The jury unanimously recommended the death penalty.

Hileman said in the motion that Castor fired Houston because she was briefed on the scope of the investigation and “has evidence from an internal investigation and should know of the relevance (if any) of these accusations to this particular case.”

Hileman said such evidence by law must be shared with defense attorneys to help them prepare their cases.

In his motion, Hileman suggested to the court that Morris’ sentencing hearing be delayed until after the federal probe is completed and the information becomes public or until the information is turned over to him by prosecutors.

Hileman said time is of the essence in the Morris case. He said that once his client is sentenced, he has 10 days to file a motion for a new trial, in which he must cite new circumstances. If he doesn’t know the details of the federal probe, he can’t go forward, he said.

“We were put on notice with the problem with Houston, but we don’t have any information,” he said. “We can’t argue it. We don’t know if it affects our case or not. Maybe it doesn’t, but we just don’t know.

“That’s our quandary. If grand jury acts or the information becomes public, I can assess it to see whether it affects the Dontae Morris case. This is a death penalty case and I don’t want to just skip over the important aspects of the record.”

Hileman reviewed the transcript of Houston’s testimony given Nov. 12 and said in the motion that Houston’s involvement in the case “was extensive and addressed a number of significant items of evidence.”

Part of the reason the trial jury recommended a death sentence for Morris was his previous murder conviction in the killing of Rodney Jones, in which Houston also played a role, Hileman said. If that conviction is overturned, that aggravating circumstance is no longer available to prosecutors arguing for a death sentence in the officers’ homicide case, he said.

Houston participated in 19 cases being reviewed by prosecutors and Tampa police. Attorneys for Schenecker on Friday, shortly after the 12-member jury was seated, asked the court to order prosecutors to turn over any information they have on Houston, who assisted in the crime-scene processing.

Prosecutors said they knew nothing of the nature of the federal probe. Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles said he was confident that if and when the state learns the details of the probe, it would make them available to the defense.

Police said homicide investigations are done by teams of detectives and that redundancy means Houston’s testimony is not crucial to any one case; others on that particular team can step in and give testimony Houston would have given at a trial.

Hileman represents several clients whose cases are before the court and in which Houston was involved. He said he will examine each case to see how to proceed.

“It would depend on whether they are set for trial or not or if they already have been tried,” he said. “The procedural stage at which they are will dictate” what action will be taken.

Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mark Cox declined comment on the motion, which is scheduled to be heard by Circuit Judge William Fuente on May 13.

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