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Jurors hard to pick in Pasco killer's resentencing

DADE CITY — Lawrence Joey Smith sat in Courtroom A at the Pasco County Courthouse on Monday in a hearing that will determine if he must trade his life for the one he took.

But the grisly crime that landed Smith here — a drug-related shooting that killed one teen and nearly killed another — has largely faded from memory.

There were no victims' family members watching the proceeding. No one in the jury pool seemed to remember the case, which was major news in 1999 when Robert Crawford, 17, and his friend Stephen Tuttle, 16, were driven out to a desolate area of Land O'Lakes to be killed for losing a drug dealer's money.

Crawford, shot in the head, died immediately. Tuttle plugged his wound with his hand and survived.

A jury convicted Smith and co-defendant Faunce Pearce of the killing. Prosecutors said Pearce masterminded the plan and Smith carried it out. Both were given death sentences.

Years later, both cases fell apart.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the trial judge made a fundamental error in sentencing Smith and threw out his death sentence.

Now, nearly 10 years after the shooting, a new jury is being chosen to resentence him. Smith's guilty verdict still stands, so the only question on the table now is his penalty.

Jurors will have two choices: life in prison with no possibility of parole, or a death sentence.

Pearce's conviction was overturned in 2006 because of attorney error. He was granted a whole new trial, although prosecutors are appealing that ruling.

Monday's laborious pace demonstrated the difficulty of empaneling a "death qualified" jury. In the first pool of people questioned, two had fundamental objections to the death penalty. More said they supported it but didn't believe they could personally impose it.

In Florida, juries can recommend death but judges have the final decision and must give great weight to the jury's advice.

"I'm going to stand before you and I'm going to ask that you return an advisory sentence of death," Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia told the panel. "That's how serious this is, folks."

By the end of the day, only three people made the cut. Jury selection continues today.

Smith is representing himself with the help of court-appointed private attorney Keith Hammond. Smith, who has become quite schooled in the law during his time behind bars, nearly won himself a whole new trial when he discovered in transcripts that his jury pool was never sworn in. That resulted in a two-day hearing with witness testimony that will also be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Hammond said he and Smith are working together strategizing this week's sentencing. Hammond is handling jury selection but Smith is expected to take a more active role when witnesses are called.

"We're going to go on a day by day (basis)," Hammond said. "Whatever he feels comfortable with is fine with me."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.

Jurors hard to pick in Pasco killer's resentencing 02/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 8:55am]
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