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Pasco drug dealer in 1999 double shooting gets life in prison after years of appeals

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.


Sept. 14, 1999: Stephen Tuttle and Robert Crawford are shot execution-style on State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes. Authorities said the teens got caught in a drug rip-off. Faunce Pearce, the drug dealer, masterminded their killings, and his accomplice, Lawrence Joey Smith, pulled the trigger.

2001: Smith and Pearce go to trial separately and are each convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder. Both receive death sentences.

January 2004: The Florida Supreme Court overturns Smith's death sentence, finding that Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson misinterpreted the law by remarking that in light of a jury's recommendation of death, he had no choice but to hand down that sentence. Pearce's conviction and death sentence are upheld that year.

November 2006: Pearce wins on another appeal, convincing Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper that his attorneys made errors in defending him. They never objected to Tuttle's testimony that Pearce forced him to perform oral sex before he was shot — a crime for which Pearce was not charged. And during Pearce's sentencing, the lawyers presented no mitigating factors that might have dissuaded the jury from a death sentence.

March 2008: A second jury, by a 7-5 vote, recommends a death sentence for Smith, who has schooled himself in capital law.

April 2008: Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper overrides the jury's recommendation and imposes a life sentence for Smith. The judge said the state had not proved two aggravating factors: one, that Smith was guilty of kidnapping Tuttle and Crawford. That was the work of Pearce, Tepper said. Two, the state had not proved who the shooter was. There were two other men with guns packed into the Trans-Am that September night.

December 2008: The Florida Supreme Court finds overwhelming evidence of Pearce's guilt and upholds his conviction, but agrees with Tepper that Pearce should be resentenced.

Wednesday: Pearce is sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors waived the death penalty.

Pasco drug dealer in 1999 double shooting gets life in prison after years of appeals 05/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 8:05pm]
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