TAMPA — For half a dozen years, James Baird says, he never told authorities what he knew about a key witness in the murder trial of Dontae Morris.
Baird’s former girlfriend, Ashley Price, testified in Morris’s trial that he called her the night Tampa Police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were slain and said he shot the “crackers.”
On Wednesday, Baird took the stand in a Tampa courtroom and testified that Price told him before Morris’s 2013 trial that she made up the confession.
"She specifically said out of her mouth, 'No, Dante did not admit to me that he committed any murders," Baird said.
Morris’s new defense team says this new information is among the reasons why a judge should toss out Morris’s conviction and death sentence and grant him a new trial.
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The lawyers for the office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates, contend that Price lied, that the jury was tainted by video images of the aftermath of the shootings, and that Morris’s trial attorneys failed to present important evidence, including information about his mental state.
The defense attorneys called Baird as witness on the third day of an evidentiary hearing in front of Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco after some uncertainty about whether Baird would be able to testify. At the end of Tuesday’s proceedings, Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon told Sisco he planned to file a motion seeking to strike Baird as a witness because his attorneys spoke to him in a jail call recorded Monday about Price’s testimony.
This tainted Baird as a witness, Harmon said. But the prosecutor told Sisco on Wednesday morning he had decided against filing the motion.
Baird, who is in the process of appealing one of his three life prison sentences for armed robbery and armed burglary, testified that he and Price got involved in a romantic relationship in 2012 and had two children together.
Baird said Price told him in 2013, before she testified in Morris’s trial, that police had pressured her to give a statement and serve as a witness.
“She would say things like, ‘I already told them I don’t want to cooperate, I’m sick of being harassed and don’t have firsthand knowledge,’ said Baird, 28. “She said they threatened her ... with charges and taking away her kids and they want her to come down to the station.”
Under cross-examination, Baird said he is not friends with Dontae Morris but that they have a very close mutual friend who is like a brother to Baird. Harmon also questioned why Baird would wait so long to disclose the information, speaking up only when Morris’s attorneys came calling.
“You want this court to now believe that you had this information in your back pocket for all these many years?" Harmon asked. "You never went and tried to assist this man when it could have counted, and now you want us to believe this?”
“Yes, I do, because it’s vital information that can be used to help,” Baird replied. “The truth is the truth.”
The day after the shootings in June 2010, Price gave a statement to detectives about Morris calling her the night of the shootings. On Monday, Price took the stand and denied that she had told Baird she lied about the confession.
Price’s account was a key piece of testimony in Morris’ trial but there was other evidence. Prosecutors also showed the jury a video of the traffic stop captured by Curtis’ dashboard camera. In the video, a man identifies himself as “Morris — Dontae," then spells out both names, just before firing two fatal shots.
Clad in a red jail jumpsuit, his head shaved to the scalp, Morris sat quietly and appeared to listen intently to the proceedings Tuesday. So have the officers’ widows, Kelly Curtis-Stout and Sara Kocab-Redmon, from their seats in the gallery.
The first phase of the hearing concluded Wednesday. The second phase is scheduled for the week of Oct. 7. Judge Sisco will make a ruling afterward.
According to court filings, defense attorneys will argue that Morris’s original defense team failed during the sentencing phase of his trial to present mitigating factors such as testimony from mental health experts and his dysfunctional family history.