DADE CITY — For three years, convicted murderer Lawrence Joey Smith fought for the right to be his own lawyer, to defend his own life from the death penalty, armed only with whatever he learned from prison law books.
That day finally arrived Thursday.
"Good afternoon, everybody," Smith told jurors. "I'm going to preface this by saying I'm not a very good public speaker.
"This is a perilous situation I am in today. My very life is in your hands. Like the judge told you, my guilt or innocence is not the question before you today.
"It's should I live or die."
Smith already has been convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder for executing Robert Crawford, 17, and trying to kill Stephen Tuttle, then 16, nine years ago.
His conviction was upheld, but his death sentence was overturned because of judicial error.
So the only issue for jurors to consider is whether Smith should receive life in prison or be put to death for his crime.
But then Smith revealed part of his defense strategy: to mitigate, or lessen, his role in the crime.
"I was not the one who held that gun and pulled that trigger that night," he told the jury.
He implied that it was Faunce Pearce, his co-defendant who awaits retrial for the 1999 crime after his conviction and death sentence were overturned.
Pearce threatened the teens after they lost his drug money in a rip-off, authorities say, and drove the boys to a remote stretch of State Road 54.
But it was Smith who was convicted of putting bullets in the back of each teen's head.
Crawford died, but Tuttle survived. Now 24, he testified about how scared he and Crawford were in the backseat of the car as Pearce and Smith sat up front.
"I was holding my best friend's hand," Tuttle testified, "praying we weren't going to die."
Tuttle survived because the bullet pierced his fingers before bouncing off his head.
"I was putting on my hat and everything went dark," an emotional Tuttle testified. "I never heard a click. I never heard a bang."
Tuttle testified he never saw who shot him, but he did say Pearce never left the driver's seat. Other state witnesses, though, said Smith was the shooter — and a cold-blooded one at that.
"Faunce told him to punch (Tuttle) in the jaw and break his jaw," eyewitness Heath Brittingham said, "and Joey just turned around … gun in hand and shot the kid when he was standing there."
Tuttle was the first victim. They drove another 250 yards. Then Crawford was ordered out.
"Joey got out and told the other boy … he needed to get out of the car," Brittingham said. "(Crawford) started begging. He said, 'Please, please don't.' "
"And what did Mr. Smith do?" asked prosecutor Manny Garcia.
"Just shot him," Brittingham said. "Didn't say a word to him. Just looked right at him and shot him."
The hearing continues today, with the state planning to call more witnesses.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)