January 11, 2018
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the death sentence of Dontae Morris in the 2010 killing of Derek Anderson in Tampa.
The justices upheld Morris’ first-degree murder conviction, but in a 5-2 decision they ruled that Morris must be resentenced because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hurst vs. Florida that the state’s former death penalty sentencing system was unconstitutional because it limited the role of the jury in capital punishment cases.
In its decision Thursday, the court said: “Because the jury in this case recommended death by a vote of 10 to 2, we cannot determine that the jury unanimously found that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators … The error in Morris’ sentencing was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Morris is also on death row for the murders of two Tampa police officers, Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis that occurred 42 days later. Last year, the court upheld the death sentences in that case, which had a unanimous jury.
Anderson, 21, was shot in the back outside his mother’s east Tampa apartment on May 18, 2010. He had just arrived home after doing laundry at a friend’s house, carrying a load of clean clothing in a backpack.
A friend of Morris testified that he called her a few days after the murder and confessed that he shot Anderson. The friend, Ashley Price, claimed Morris told her he and Anderson had argued earlier that day because Anderson was selling marijuana on what Morris considered to be his “turf.”
Police were unable to link Morris to the crime until June 29, 2010, when he murdered Curtis and Kocab during a traffic stop. Curtis, who pulled over a car driven by Morris’ then-girlfriend, discovered that Morris had a warrant for writing bad checks. When Curtis moved to arrest him, Morris drew a gun and shot each officer once.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement analysis of the two bullets he fired revealed they came from the same gun used to murder Anderson.
On appeal, Morris’ defense argued that his conviction should be overturned. Among other issues, they cited the notoriety of the case and the judge’s decision to keep the trial in Hillsborough County. But the high court ruled that there was no evidence that the jury knew anything about Morris’s crimes before the trial.
The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office will have to decide whether to seek a new death sentence for Morris in the Anderson case.
He remains on death row for the police killings.