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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Jurors selected in Dontae Morris trial

ORLANDO — A Sea World employee, an architect and a pilot are among the jurors selected from Orange County to decide whether Dontae Morris should be convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to death in the slayings of two Tampa police officers.

Opening statements are set to begin Tuesday morning in Tampa in a trial focusing on the June 29, 2010, shooting deaths of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab during a routine traffic stop in East Tampa.

Court officials took four days to pick the jury in Orlando after Circuit Judge William Fuente ruled Morris could not get a fair trial in Hillsborough County. In addition to the police killings, Morris is awaiting trial in two other murder cases and was convicted earlier this year of yet another murder.

The prosecution is seeking the death sentence in only the Curtis and Kocab killings.

The Orange County jurors will be sequestered in a Hillsborough County hotel during the trial, which is expected to last the rest of the week and could run into Saturday. If Morris is convicted of first-degree murder, the jurors will return to Hillsborough County the following week for another hearing at which they will hear evidence over whether they should recommend a death sentence.

Fuente and lawyers questioned 150 people to find the 12 jury members and four alternates who will hear the case.

As the judge sent the new jurors home with plans to be driven to Hillsborough County on Sunday, he implored them to avoid any media coverage or conversations about the case. “Please, please, please heed our admonition that you not let yourself be exposed to anything about this case,” he said.

Although several people in the pool of potential jurors said they had heard or read something about Morris, just one member of the final panel described seeing a television report about the case before he came to court.

A retired truck driver said he saw a news report the day before he was questioned about the Morris case and a high-profile Orlando murder trial that was also the subject of jury selection in the Orange County Courthouse.

Regarding Morris, he said, “All I heard was that it was a murder trial and they were polling for jurors yesterday and they were probably doing it for a couple of days,” he said. “I heard that two officers were shot and killed. That’s all I really heard about it.”

The man said he watches a lot of news. “What I hear, what I read, I take a lot of it with a grain of salt,” he said, pledging to be impartial. “I’ve got good common sense.”

 Fuente has worked to ensure that jurors in each of Morris’ trials were unaware of the other murder charges he faced. One jury candidate nearly derailed the Orlando efforts on Wednesday when she blurted out statements about Morris’ other cases.

 “I have a little theory,” she said in part. “If you are in court and you have been charged and found guilty of first-degree murder , you are wasting our taxpayers money to do another performance and another performance. If you are sentenced for one thing and brought in for another crime, you are wasting taxpayers money. You are guilty guilty guilty.”

 Defense lawyers asked Fuente to strike the entire panel on the grounds the woman’s comments had tainted the entire pool. But Fuente agreed with Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon, who argued that the woman’s comments could just be interpreted by the others as a reference to the procedure in which a sentencing hearing would be held after a trial and conviction.

The comments of a different jury candidate caught the attention of a fellow panel member, who asked to talk to Fuente away from the rest of the pool. That man said he was concerned about statements by a woman, who said she had seen news reports about Morris and, “In my heart now, I find him to be guilty.”

 “It just seemed like that might seem a little prejudicial,” said the man who sat in front of her. “I want to make sure we weren’t going to have a tainted jury pool because she made such an inflammatory statement.”
Neither of the two was selected to sit on the jury.

Among those selected were seven, plus three alternates, who said they favor the death penalty, and five who said they had no strong opinion.

Just one alternate, a bookkeeper, said she tended to be against the death penalty, saying she thinks life in prison without parole is a better punishment.

A pilot for Southwest Airlines, for example, said, he was generally accepting of the death penalty, adding that he views capital punishment as part of the “social contract,” given to law enforcement.

 “It is the ultimate tool and it should be used after consideration … it is a very difficult issue. I have been on both sides of it.”

The retired truck driver also described himself as having a “fairly strong” position for the death penalty. “I don’t like it, but it’s part of what we have to do,” he said.

Among those staking out a middle position on capital punishment was an architect, who said, “I believe the life of the defendant is precious, but the lives of the victims are also precious. So if the evidence was aggravating, I could vote for the death sentence.”

He said he could also vote for life in prison if the evidence justified it. “I think that to choose the death penalty would take a lot of heavy weighing of different sides of the issues.”

All those selected said they could keep an open mind and weigh the evidence before determining punishment.

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Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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