TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered resentencing for a Death Row inmate who was convicted in the 2004 sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia -- a Sarasota County case that drew national attention.
The 4-3 decision vacating the death sentence of Joseph P. Smith came in one of dozens of appeals filed by Death Row inmates after a January 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found Florida’s death-penalty process was unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries.
That U.S. Supreme Court decision and subsequent Florida Supreme Court rulings have led to requirements that juries must unanimously agree on critical findings before judges can impose death sentences and must unanimously recommend the death penalty.
A jury recommended in a 10-2 vote that Smith be sentenced to death. Though that occurred before the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Florida Supreme Court has applied the unanimity requirements retroactively to many cases.
“In Smith’s case, the jury did not make the requisite factual findings and did not unanimously recommend a sentence of death,” said Thursday’s majority opinion shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. “Instead, the jury recommended the sentence of death by a vote of 10 to 2.”
The opinion said the Supreme Court has “no way of knowing if the jury unanimously found” what are known as aggravating factors that help determine whether defendants are sentenced to death and if aggravating factors outweighed mitigating circumstances.
“Further, this (Supreme) Court cannot speculate why the two jurors who voted to recommend a sentence of life imprisonment determined that a sentence of death was not the appropriate punishment,” the opinion said.
Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson dissented. Canady and Polston did not explain their dissent, though they have frequently dissented in other cases stemming from the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Lawson also did not explain his reasons but cited a dissent he wrote in February in a separate case. In that case, he said the court should use a “proper rational jury test” and that the case involved findings that “no objectively reasonable jury, properly instructed, would have failed to unanimously make in support of a unanimous death recommendation.”
The Brucia case drew widespread attention, in part, because a surveillance camera showed Smith grabbing the girl by the arm and leading her away from a carwash. Brucia’s body was found four days later naked from the waist down except for a sock on her foot, and a medical examiner said she was sexually assaulted while she was still alive and died of strangulation, according to a brief filed in the Supreme Court by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.
The Supreme Court decision Thursday upheld a ruling last year by Sarasota County Circuit Judge Charles E. Roberts that Smith’s death sentence should be vacated because of the unanimity issue. Roberts wrote, however, that prosecutors could seek to reimpose a death sentence when a new sentencing hearing is held.
Bondi’s office in an October brief asked the Supreme Court to uphold Smith’s death sentence.
“A rational jury certainly would have unanimously recommended death had it been instructed that a unanimous recommendation was required. Smith did what nearly every parent fears most; he grabbed young C.B. and kidnapped her while she was walking home from a friend’s house,” Bondi’s office said in the brief, which referred to the child by her initials. “Smith then sexually battered and horrifically murdered the young victim. This was a highly aggravated case and the mitigation was minimal, at best, in comparison to the very weighty aggravation.”