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Morris v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

January 11, 2018

DONTAE R. MORRIS, Appellant,


         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Hillsborough County, William Fuente, Judge - Case No. 292010CF010373000AHC

          Howard L. "Rex" Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Steven L. Bolotin, Assistant Public Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, Florida, for Appellant

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, and Marilyn Muir Beccue, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, Florida, for Appellee

          PER CURIAM.

         Dontae Morris appeals his conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of death.[1] For the following reasons, we affirm the conviction but vacate his sentence and remand for a new penalty phase.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Morris was convicted and sentenced to death for the May 18, 2010, first-degree premeditated murder of Derek Anderson. The evidence at trial established that on May 18, 2010, at approximately 11:20 p.m., twenty-one-year-old Derek Anderson was walking home with a friend, Joe Anderson, when they noticed a white car following them. Joe testified that as they reached the entrance to Derek's apartment complex, the white car drove by them slowly at about five miles per hour and that he saw four males in the car looking at him and Derek. Joe and Derek then parted ways, and Joe watched Derek walk across the apartment complex's parking lot towards the apartment where Derek lived with his mother. Joe proceeded to walk back to his home.

         Shortly thereafter, while Joe was walking home, he called Derek's mother's cell phone to check on Derek. Derek answered the phone and appeared to be all right, but the call ended in static. Joe called the number back, and someone answered the phone. Joe heard screams and raised voices. Joe ran home to talk to his parents and then back to Derek's apartment where he found police officers and neighbors crowded by Derek's body in front of Derek's apartment door.

         Police Officer John Simpkins was the first officer to arrive on the scene. Officer Simpkins testified that at 11:31 p.m. he received a dispatch to respond to Derek's apartment complex and was advised that someone had been shot. He arrived at the scene one minute later to find Derek on the ground in front of his apartment door with a bloodstain on his shirt. Derek was not breathing and did not have a pulse, so Officer Simpkins began CPR. Officer Dennis Small arrived on the scene and helped Officer Simpkins with CPR until Tampa Fire Rescue EMS arrived and transported Derek to the hospital.

         Officer Small followed Derek to the emergency room, where trauma surgeons and nurses attempted to revive him. Despite the doctors' and nurses' efforts, Derek was pronounced dead at 12:33 a.m. Derek had no exit wounds, so Officer Small asked Dr. Shapiro to remove any projectiles from Derek's body for evidentiary purposes. Officer Small witnessed Dr. Shapiro remove a bullet from Derek's right pectoral muscles.

         Dr. Mary Mainland testified that an autopsy revealed that Derek's cause of death was a single gunshot wound to his back with the bullet perforating his heart, aorta, esophagus, and lungs. The bullet had an upward trajectory from the entrance wound to where it was located in Derek's right pectoral muscles. The gunshot wound caused Derek to bleed to death within seconds or minutes.

         Yolanda Soto, a firearm and toolmaking examiner with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, compared the projectile taken from Derek's body with two projectiles that came from a firearm Morris fired forty-two days after Derek was shot. Ms. Soto testified that all three projectiles were fired from the same firearm.

         Tamora Dorn, Derek's sister, lived in the same apartment complex as Derek but in a different apartment unit. Ms. Dorn testified that on May 18, 2010, at around 11:30 p.m., she had her apartment door open because she was cleaning, and she heard a gunshot. She walked outside of her apartment and saw people scuffling outside. She spoke with someone briefly and then ran towards her mother's apartment. As she approached the apartment, she could see Derek's body and hear her mother. She also confirmed that Derek did not own a phone and would sometimes use his mother's phone.

         Cordelia Fisher, a neighbor, testified that around 11:30 p.m. on May 18, 2010, she was in her apartment and heard a gunshot. She looked out her window and saw four black men, whom she did not recognize, running toward a white car that was in the parking lot. She saw the men get in the car and drive away.

         Willieshia Jones, Derek's friend who lived near the apartment complex, testified that between 11:00 and 11:30 p.m. she was in the apartment's park area when she heard a gunshot. She saw people running toward the back of the apartment complex. She followed the crowd and saw Derek's body. When she turned to walk away from the area, she saw a white car pull out of the parking lot.

         Ashley Price testified that she was friends with Morris. They were intimate on one occasion, but after that encounter remained friends and talked on the phone but were not romantically involved. Morris called Ashley on the phone almost daily to confide in her. Also, Ashley stated that she had previously lived in the same apartment complex as Derek, and she knew Derek sold marijuana in the apartment complex.

         A few days after Derek's murder, Morris called Ashley and told her that he murdered Derek. Morris told Ashley that earlier on the day of Derek's murder, he and Derek had an argument, which almost turned physical, over Derek selling marijuana on Morris' "turf, " and Derek told Morris that he would continue to sell marijuana wherever he wanted. Later, around midnight on the same day, Morris saw Derek walking inside the apartment complex. Morris followed Derek from a distance, so Derek would not realize he was being followed. When Derek was in front of his second-floor apartment door talking on the phone, Morris stood on a knee-high wall in the first-floor breezeway and shot Derek in the stomach area. According to Morris, Derek fell to the ground immediately. Morris told Ashley that he knew where to shoot a person to kill him.

         Photographs of the apartment building where Derek was shot show that there is a knee-high wall directly below Derek's second-story apartment and that there is a large rectangular open space in the middle of the second floor, allowing a person on the first floor to see the area by Derek's front door. During the investigation, a detective stood on the wall and had a clear view of the location where Derek was shot. Additionally, when Ashley was interviewed, law enforcement had not released any information about Derek being on the phone when he was shot.

          On June 2, 2010, Detective Henry Duran placed a call to a phone number associated with Morris and spoke with Morris, who identified himself. Detective Duran subsequently heard Morris' voice in person and on recordings of jail phone calls and testified that he had no doubt that Morris was the person who answered the phone on June 2, 2010. Cell phone records for that phone number revealed that on the date of Derek's murder, the phone was utilizing cell phone towers located near the murder scene. Notably, at 11:30 p.m. the cell phone used a tower one-third of a mile away from the crime scene.

         Following the State's case, Morris rested without presenting any evidence or calling any witnesses in his defense. Morris argued during closing arguments that the circumstantial evidence did not prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that Ashley was not a credible witness. Morris' counsel pointed out that Ashley testified that Morris told her that he shot Derek in the stomach, while the autopsy showed that Derek was shot in the back. Ultimately, the jury found Morris guilty of first-degree premeditated murder.

         At the penalty phase, the State presented evidence that Morris was convicted of the first-degree murder and attempted robbery with a firearm of Rodney Jones. The State also presented evidence that Morris was convicted of the first-degree murders of Officers Curtis and Kocab. Additionally, Derek's mother wrote a victim impact statement, which was read for the jury. In mitigation, Morris presented testimony from his aunt, his son's mother, and a woman he helped take to the hospital after she broke her ankle. On July 30, 2015, the jury recommended the death penalty by a vote of ten to two.

         On December 4, 2015, the trial court sentenced Morris to death in accordance with the jury's recommendation. The court found a single aggravator: Morris was previously convicted of another capital felony or a felony involving the use or threat of use of violence to a person (great weight). The trial court found twenty-two mitigating circumstances.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Morris raises six issues, namely three guilt phase issues, two penalty phase issues, and the proportionality of his sentence. Because we remand for a new penalty phase, we do not discuss his penalty phase claims. We also independently review whether there is sufficient evidence to support Morris' conviction.

         A. Motion to Reconsider Change of Venue

         Morris first argues that the trial court erred when it granted the State's motion for reconsideration of defendant's motion for change of venue. However, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

         Morris' motion for change in venue was related to media attention regarding other crimes Morris was associated with. Aside from this case, Morris was also charged with the murders of four other people: Rodney Jones, Officer Curtis, Officer Kocab, and Harold Wright. The murders occurred within weeks of Derek's murder and resulted in a massive manhunt for Morris. Morris was first tried for the murder of Rodney Jones. Due to the media attention surrounding the murders of Officers Curtis and Kocab, the jury for the Jones murder trial had to be selected in Orlando and transported to Hillsborough County, where the trial took place. The parties proceeded with the understanding that the change in venue applied to all of Morris' trials, and the jury was selected following the same procedure for the trial for the murders of Officers Curtis and Kocab. Then, in the present case, the State filed a motion for the trial court to reconsider the change of venue for Derek's murder trial, arguing that a change of venue was no longer necessary because a sufficient ...

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