DADE CITY — Convicted murderer Lawrence Joey Smith leaned over a shaking piece of yellow lined paper and begged once again for his life.
"I want it to be known that I am truly sorry for what happened Sept. 14, 1999," Smith said.
Then he added: "I did not pull that trigger. I never meant for it to happen like that."
But if Smith won't admit he was the shooter — and he has already been convicted of killing Robert Crawford and trying to kill Stephen Tuttle — then what exactly did he apologize for?
Smith came to court Thursday to ask Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper to spare his life, to override a jury's recommendation that he should die for his crimes.
But Smith, a jailhouse lawyer representing himself using what he learned in the prison law library, may also have an eye on future legal strategy.
That may explain why he still will not apologize for, nor admit to, the crimes he has already been convicted of — not even if it could mean sparing his life.
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Smith tried — and failed — to convince a jury this month to spare his life for shooting two teens in the back of the head in 1999. One lived and one died.
The 30-year-old argued to the judge Thursday what he argued to the jury: He is a changed man, and he can do good if allowed to spend the rest of his life in prison.
"To execute me now would be to extinguish one small candle who can bring hope and life to those walking down the same dark path," Smith said.
The jury recommended a sentence of death March 4 by a 7-5 vote. The law says a judge must give "great weight" to the jury's ruling. But in Florida the law also says it is judges who impose death, not jurors.
So Thursday was the last chance for Smith and his supporters to convince Tepper to overrule the jury.
It was also the last chance for Crawford's family to convince the judge not to.
Crawford's mother wondered what her son could have done with his life had he not been shot, as he begged for his life, at age 17.
"My son Robert was a compassionate, caring, loving human being," Patricia Brink told the court. "Robert was born on St. Patrick's Day with a smile that never wavered.
"I am absolutely sure that even Joey Smith saw the love in my son's eyes before he killed him."
Crawford's mother told the court that her son's executioner counseled other prisoners for his own purposes. She said he is uncaring, stoic — out for his own good, not the good of others.
"I do wonder whether he has anything to offer the world beside his own desire to control it," she said.
And she noted that Smith has not even admitted to the crimes he was convicted of — first-degree murder and attempted murder — nor has he shown remorse.
"A person who cannot be honest with himself," she said, "cannot change."
A curious legal move
Smith was first sentenced to death in 2004, but that was overturned because of judicial error. His convictions, however, were upheld.
Granted a new penalty phase, he drafted his own defense strategy with help from lawyer Keith Hammond.
During the sentencing retrial, Smith engaged in a curious legal maneuver for a man fighting for his life: He tried to imply that co-defendant Faunce Pearce was the gunman — not him.
Both Pearce's conviction and death sentence were overturned in 2006, though the state is appealing.
Pearce is the alleged mastermind of the plot to kill the teens for losing his drug money, but Smith is the gunman convicted of carrying out his orders.
So why would Smith try to absolve himself of crimes the jury already knew he had been convicted of?
It may be because Smith hasn't exhausted all of the appeals of his original 2001 convictions.
If he is sentenced to death again, and after he has exhausted the appeals of his capital sentence, then he can file for a new appeal of his convictions.
But any admissions Smith makes during the penalty phase retrial could be used against him if he gets a new trial.
That may be why when Smith testified on his own behalf this month, he never spoke about the night of the shootings — and never let prosecutors question him about it, either.
At the end of Thursday's hearing, Tepper asked Smith if he would like to say who fired the shots that night.
For appellate reasons, Smith said, he would not.
The judge will sentence him on April 22.