TAMPA — Jailed on charges he murdered two Tampa police officers and three other men, Dontae Morris wrote, “I never regretted anything in my life.”
To Police Chief Jane Castor, the statement underscores her opinion that Morris “truly has no remorse and I believe has no conscience.”
But Morris’ mother, Selecia Watson, said she doesn’t think her son is guilty at all.
“I do not believe that for the simple fact that, as I said earlier, the dash cam video was shown to my best friend who is a retired police officer, and she knows her nephew because she’s known him from birth,” Watson said. “And in the incident, as a retired police officer, yes she felt for her fallen officers, but in the same aspect, she knows him and she said that it was not nearly possible that that could have been her nephew, because there was no facial viewable seen in that video, and that his body makeup was not like Dontae’s. So at this point, I’m going to say my son is still innocent.”
She said that she visits her son weekly in jail, but they generally don’t talk about what happened because jail conversations are recorded. But she said her son once told her, “Mom, I could not have done anything like that.”
On Friday, Watson and Castor both addressed Circuit Judge William Fuente, who is mulling whether to follow a jury’s recommendation that Morris be sentenced to death for the murders of officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis during a traffic stop on June 29, 2010.
Fuente gave the lawyers until April 30 to submit sentencing memos, and he tentatively scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 30, saying the date very likely could change.
Morris is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of another man, Rodney Jones, and faces two more murder trials in the slayings of Harold Wright and Derek Anderson.
“Although it is impossible to speak to the individual impact this horrific event has had on each of us, I can tell you this; when you lose a member of your family it shakes you to your core,” Castor said. At times, the police chief could be heard stifling emotion that welled up in her throat.
Castor recalled how fellow officers struggled with the loss in the hospital emergency room that morning. And she described what happened when the deceased officers’ newly widowed spouses arrived:
“Once Kelly and Sara arrived at the hospital, and after I had prepared them the best I could, I asked the officers standing over Dave and Jeff to leave, so they didn’t have to be there when the families came in. They said without hesitation, that with ‘all due respect’ they were not leaving.
“You see, in law enforcement you never leave your partner’s side. They stood strong and stoic as Sara and her pastor came to see Jeff, and Kelly and her mom came to see Dave. They stood strong and stoic, although you could not miss the tears streaming down their faces. I know that they were each profoundly affected. One of those officers has since left law enforcement.”
Castor said she has tried to make sense or find some reason for the officers’ deaths, without success.
“Through my career I have seen people do horrible things,” she said. “But if you look deeply enough, you can usually find points in their lives where they were broken, most often through no fault of their own. I looked for that in Dontae Morris’ life. But what I heard was a childhood of love and support. Parents and a community that held him up and provided a positive environment in which to grow. How did he become a person with no conscience?”
Castor, who had not publicly said whether she thought Morris should be sentenced to death, wanted to tell the judge her opinion. But she said she was asked to remove that part of her statement because the judge didn’t allow death penalty opinions.
The police department later released the entire statement, including the part that was deleted:
“I will share with you that I believe in God and embrace most of the Bible’s teachings,” the statement says. “But, I do question an ‘eye for an eye’. I have seen too much in my thirty years of law enforcement to believe that there is any meaning or relief in that process.
However, the actions of this defendant have altered that view. I can say that, in my humble opinion, if there was ever a case where the death penalty applied it is here and now.”
Watson told reporters she wanted in her statement “to uplift my son with encouraging words.”
“I wanted to let him understand that no matter what the situation, a mother’s love is always there for him,” she said.
She said she chose a biblical reading from Psalms “because Psalms is the song of praise and worship, and that’s what I am. I’m a praiser and I worship.”
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight,” she told Fuente. “Oh Lord, you are my strength and you are my redeemer. … A mother loves her children all the time, no matter what the problem, no matter what the crime. A mother loves her children all the time. Know my son that the enemy will always be with you. He will be in the shadow of your dreams and in your living flesh for he is the other part of yourself. There will be times when he will surround you with walls of darkness, but remember always that your soul is secure to you and the enemy cannot enter your soul, for your soul is a part of God.”
Watson said she visits her son in jail every week with her mother, her aunt and her sister. “We go out to uplift him through our visits,” she said. “We talk a lot about scripture, and we pray a lot. And we reminisce about his childhood and we talk about his son.”
Asked if she had anything to say to the victims’ families, Watson replied, “At this point, I would say I understand because I, too, had a cousin who was murdered, and his murderer was never found. So as a family going through a loss, I understand.”
On Friday, the prosecution also presented testimony from a psychiatrist to rebut a defense psychologist who testified Thursday that Morris has a borderline intelligence.
Emily Lazarou testified she reviewed hours of recorded phone conversations, as well as intercepted letters written by Morris, and found him to be average or slightly above average in intelligence.
“He’s a very spiritual guy and when you read the letters, you see that in there,” Lazarou said.
In one letter from jail, Morris wrote, “They (deputies) don’t bother us back here. They have to treat us respectfully because we have secret weapons, such as media attention, for example.”
In another letter, he expressed an interest in studying the Rastafarian religion. And in another, he bragged about his smarts: “I’m very, very self educated and extremely intelligent. (Not bragging, but I’m giving truth right now.) Love to read anything and everything.”
Lazarou said Morris got A’s and B’s in school until the ninth grade when he started having problems with the law. Morris dropped out in the 11th grade.