TAMPA — A routine traffic stop that began when most of the city was sleeping ended with the execution deaths of two Tampa police officers at the hands of Dontae Morris, “a vicious, cold-blooded murderer,” a prosecutor said Tuesday.
So began the long-awaited, high-profile murder trial for Morris in the June 29, 2010, slayings of officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. Unlike the vast majority of trials, Circuit Judge William Fuente's courtroom was packed with spectators for the start of what is expected to be a week-long trial. If Morris is convicted of first-degree murder, the prosecution intends to seek the death penalty.
Morris' lawyers gave little clue to their defense Tuesday, implying but not directly stating that Morris may have been the victim of mistaken identity.
“On June 29, 2010, Dontae Morris' life, this person's life, was turned upside down,” said Karen Meeks, one of a team of four lawyers from the state's office of conflict counsel representing Morris. Meeks said Morris “never imagined there would be a manhunt for him” but found his life in danger and turned himself in when he learned authorities were searching for him.
The first witness of the trial was Curtis' widow, Kelly, who calmly identified her husband's handwriting and the notebook where he'd written Morris' name and date of birth just before he was killed.
And the first officer on the scene after the killings, Steven Roy, choked back emotion as he described what he saw. “I looked over and I could see it,” Roy said. “They were both laying… Jeff with his head on Dave's chest.”
He and Officer William J. Logan separated the two and began performing CPR. Curtis was breathing; Kocab wasn't, Roy said. Neither was responsive.
The court day concluded shortly after jurors were shown the closely guarded dashboard video taken from Curtis' patrol car and showing the abrupt killings of the officers when they tried to place the shooter under arrest for a mistakenly issued, outstanding warrant.
Spectators could not see the video, which was played on a screen turned away from the courtroom gallery. Those in attendance were ordered to turn off their cell phones, and the media were ordered not to record the audio feed.
The recording began with Curtis' following behind a Toyota driven by Cortnee Brantley and lacking a license tag. After Curtis pulled the car over, he engaged in conversation with Brantley and her passenger, who identified himself as Morris and gave his date of birth.
Curtis then ran Morris' information through his patrol car computer and found the reported warrant. He was joined by Kocab as a backup, and the two men walked to the passenger side of the car and confronted the passenger about the warrant.
“I ain't got no warrant,” the suspect said, and then acted as if he was about to comply with an order that he put his hands behind his back. In a split second, he reached down, grabbed a gun from inside the car, turned and shot both officers in the head, tumbling forward and sprinting away.
Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said the way the killings happened showed planning and premeditation.
“He shoots them so quickly and so efficiently, it almost sounds like one shot going off,” Harmon told jurors in his opening statement. “These murders were so efficiently carried out and so well planned” that well-trained officers were unable to do anything to protect themselves.
Morris, Harmon said, pretended to surrender “so they would draw close to him so they would give him easy, close and efficient targets.”
On the video, Brantley screamed for the passenger, yelling “Bay! Bay!,” before peeling away from the scene, leaving the two officers dead or dying by the side of the road.
Within a couple of minutes, bystanders rushed to the officers's sides.
“Oh my God!” a woman screamed. “It's two of them. They both down! One's breathing… Both of them breathing.. They're both breathing… One gagging blood out of his mouth.. One gagging blood.”
Someone sounds as if she's calling 911. “Please hurry! Oh my Jesus! Oh my god!”
“This man is about to gag! He gagging! Hurry up. Come on! Hurry up! ... This man dead! This man dead!”
Around the city, the call went out. Officers down. Law enforcement sped to the scene as the driver and the shooter got away.
In court Tuesday, at least one juror reacted in shock when the video showed the shots being fired. Some in the courtroom full of friends and family members of the officers wept quietly as they listened to the Curtis' and Kocab's last moments on earth.
Morris didn't appear to have any outward reaction, although one of his lawyers, Byron Hileman, appeared to avert his eyes.
In what may have been a tactical error, another defense lawyer, Christopher Bolt, pointed out that the prosecution had not played the complete video.
And so Harmon played the last two minutes depicting desperate efforts by police to save the lives of their brethren, prompting a few in the gallery to leave the courtroom, while the officers' widows and other family members remained.
The grunts and compressions of CPR could be heard as voices coaxed the officers to fight for their lives.
“Jeff, come on, buddy! Jeff come on!””
“1,2,3,4… Come on! Come on!...1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8… Come on, Jeff… Hold on. Hold on!”
Harmon told jurors that law enforcement officers who heard Morris' voice numerous time in the Hillsborough County Jail will identify the voice of the shooter on the video as belonging to Morris.
Meeks, however, told jurors, “You have a duty to weigh the evidence (and) decide this case on the law and the evidence.” The voice identification, she said, will come only from law enforcement, and not from any experts in voice identification.
Harmon said an acquaintance of Morris, Ashley Price, will testify that Morris told her he killed the officers.
Price, a three-time felon and mother of four, testified in Morris other murder trial in March. In that case, Morris was convicted and sentenced to life for the shooting of Rodney Jones.
Meeks told jurors Price “received financial benefits” from authorities involved in this case.
Harmon said Price will testify in this trial that Morris called her less than an hour after the killings and asked for a ride. She didn't get him.
Later that day, Harmon said, Morris called her and told her to turn on the news.
“I did it. I shot 'em,” Harmon said Morris told Price. “He shot 'both those crackers in the head.' ”