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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Location of Dontae Morris trial to be determined this week

TAMPA — The judge presiding over the trial of the man accused of shooting to death two Tampa police officers three years ago said he will decide by the end of the week whether the November trial will take place in Tampa or Orlando.

During a brief status conference Monday morning, Circuit Judge William Fuente said he will pick a jury of Orlando residents, but whether he will bring them to Tampa or hold the trial there remains unresolved. The judge said the situation of where the trial will be held “is up in the air right now.”

The man accused of shooting the officers during a traffic stop, 28-year-old Dontae Morris, sat in the jury box, hands and feet shackled. All he said during the hearing was that he understood what was going on.

His capital murder trial is scheduled to start Nov. 4.

Because of the publicity surrounding the high-profile slayings of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab and the subsequent manhunt for their killer, Fuente earlier abandoned hopes of picking an untainted jury in Tampa and opted for Orlando, where publicity about the homicides and manhunt wasn't as pervasive.

The judge could bring the jury to Tampa to hear the case, sequestering jurors in hotel rooms here. Or he could hold the trial in Orlando, allowing the panel to go home at night.

Prosecutors say moving a trial to another city presents logistical problems but they are easily overcome.

The state would have to pay either for housing jurors in Tampa or pay to house lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses and court personnel in Orlando.

Morris, 28, also faces trials in the killing of two other men, Harold Wright and Derek Anderson. Those trials have not been scheduled.

In March, Morris was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Rodney Jones, 42, outside the Cotton Club just a month before the two police officers were gunned down. In the Jones case, the judge could not seat a jury in Tampa, as a majority of the jury pool knew of the charges against Morris and had to go to Orange County for a jury pool. A jury was seated in Orlando, then bused to Tampa for the trial.

If Morris is convicted of the police killings, prosecutors will use his murder conviction in the Jones case as an aggravating factor in favor of the death penalty.

Police officers Curtis and Kocab were on patrol at 2:11 a.m. June 29, 2010, when they pulled over a 1994 Toyota Camry at 50th Street and 23rd Avenue for not having a license plate. Investigators said Morris, a passenger, shot and killed the officers after he thought he was going back to jail on an outstanding warrant charging him with writing worthless checks.

Morris fled after the shootings, beginning the largest manhunt in Tampa history. He was arrested four days later when he turned himself in.

Defense attorneys Monday morning said the judge needs to rule on about 20 defense motions pending in the case. One is a motion to exclude from the trial key evidence — a dashboard videotape of the slaying taken from one of the officers patrol cars.

Defense attorneys Byron Hileman and Christopher Boldt want Fuente to throw out the video because Morris' actions that night were the “product of flagrant unlawful police action.” In the motion, the lawyers say that Morris was illegally detained; that the officers had no grounds to ask him for his identification or to tell him to stay put while they ran his name through the crime computer. The motion asks the court to toss all the evidence and statements on the video.

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