DADE CITY — Faunce Pearce, the mastermind behind one of Pasco County's most nefarious murders, was spared the death penalty Wednesday and sentenced to life in prison.
It's the latest notch on the case's long, twisting time line and came down to a legal principle known as proportionality. When two people commit a crime, their punishments must be proportional to their level of culpability in the crime.
The case exploded one night in 1999 on a darkened stretch of State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes. Pearce, a drug dealer, had been ripped off in a $1,200 LSD deal by a group of teenagers, authorities said. He and accomplice Lawrence Joey Smith loaded two of the teens in a car and drove them into the darkness to execute them. Pearce gave the orders, prosecutors said, and Smith fired the gun.
Stephen Tuttle, then 16, flinched when the bullet fired, and it grazed his finger before entering his brain. He managed to crawl out of a ditch and get help from a passing driver. A few hundred yards down the road, Smith and Pearce pulled over again, tossed 17-year-old Robert Crawford from the car and Smith shot him. He died within minutes.
At one time, both defendants faced the death penalty. They went to trial separately and juries found them guilty and recommended the ultimate punishment. But after countless appeals, hearings and rulings, both won repeated second chances.
Smith, 31, who groomed himself into a jailhouse lawyer, beat two death sentences and is now serving a life term.
Pearce, 47, was set to have a new sentencing phase. His appellate lawyer filed a request to State Attorney Bernie McCabe that the death penalty be waived, leaving only one possible sentence. In Florida, first degree murder is punishable either by life in prison or death.
Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia, who represented the state on Wednesday, wrote a supplemental memo to McCabe providing case law about proportionality.
Garcia explained it like this: "If the shooter gets life, it would be disproportionate to seek death for the non-shooter."
McCabe agreed to the waiver, and Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper imposed the life sentence.
She's also the judge who overrode the jury's recommendation of death for Smith and sent him to prison for life.
No family members of Pearce attended Wednesday's sentencing, nor did Crawford's family or Tuttle show up. Garcia said they were all notified.
Tuttle, who suffered severe mental trauma and brain damage, has struggled to move on since the shooting. He never finished high school and hasn't been able to keep a job because of short-term memory problems.
Garcia said that Pearce's case, from the state's perspective, is finally, truly finished.
"It's a lawful sentence," Garcia said of the life term.
Pearce, though, seemed to indicate otherwise. He spoke about wanting to appeal again in the federal courts.
He asked for a new lawyer.