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Rocky start for Smith trial

FRED BELLET   |   Pool photo
Lawrence Joey Smith is representing himself. He killed a teenager and tried to kill another in 1999.

FRED BELLET | Pool photo Lawrence Joey Smith is representing himself. He killed a teenager and tried to kill another in 1999.

DADE CITY — Lawrence Joey Smith hopes his nine years studying in the prison law library are enough to save his life.

He is facing the death penalty for taking the life of one teen and trying to kill another in two execution-style shootings — and he's defending himself.

He's never been to law school — but he sure got schooled on Wednesday.

Smith's penalty phase retrial hasn't even started yet and he may already have blundered.

After the jury was sworn in, Smith insisted that a new exam of old gunshot residue tests taken of his hands nine years ago be introduced as evidence.

Smith argued the tests could show that he didn't fire the gun that killed Robert Crawford, 17, and almost killed Stephen Tuttle, 16, over missing drug money in 1999.

Smith believed the report would show that he only handled the gun, that he didn't have enough gunshot residue on his hands to have been the shooter.

There's two potential problems with that theory: First, Smith has already been convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder for doing just that.

That conviction was upheld, but his death sentence was overturned in 2004. That's what this retrial is for, to decide again whether he should spend the rest of his life in prison or be put to death for that crime.

Second, the report puts the murder weapon in his hand.

That's why defense attorney Keith Hammond, Smith's standby counsel, tried to keep the gunshot report out of the trial — and away from his client.

The report's very existence left Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper bewildered and Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia livid. Even Smith seemed angry that his standby attorney had withheld it from him. And by introducing it so late, Smith violated a major evidentiary rule that both sides must share everything with each other.

Garcia also feared the report might show that Smith's hands tested negative for gunshot residue.

Then the prosecutor read it.

"I thought it was going to be prejudiced (against the state)," Garcia said, "but now they're saying it's positive for gunshot residue on his right palm."

So Smith, who wanted to argue he wasn't the shooter, handed physical evidence to the prosecution showing he actually did hold the weapon.

"I object to that, your honor," Smith said. "(The prosecutor) is trying to steal my trial strategy and twist it around."

"He's allowed to," the judge said.

"It's underhanded, your honor," Smith said.

"That's what Mr. Hammond was getting at," the judge said. "He didn't want it coming in because he understood it could come back and bite you."

Gunshot residue tests have been deemed forensically unreliable, Hammond said afterward, leaving themselves open to all kinds of interpretations.

Until the report was entered, Hammond said Smith "had the state on the ropes" with the argument that he wasn't the shooter — despite his convictions.

Even in the penalty phase, that still has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the lawyer said. The defense's strategy was to introduce doubt about that fact, even though two unindicted co-defendants and the surviving victim will testify that Smith was the shooter.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Rocky start for Smith trial 02/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2008 9:26pm]
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