DADE CITY — Stephen Tuttle sat in court last week and watched the man who fired a bullet into his brain 10 years ago learn his fate.
He chatted with the mother of his former best friend, the friend who wasn't as lucky as Tuttle. He listened quietly as the judge read her long, technical sentencing order that spared the life of Lawrence Joey Smith even after two juries said he should die for his crimes.
Tuttle is 24, an age when he should be earning money, meeting girls and beginning to find his way as an adult. Instead, he is stunted by the physical and emotional scars of what befell him as a high school kid who dipped his toes into trouble, and then one night fell, full body, into tragedy.
Smith, the judge decided, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Tuttle was stunned by the decision, but he could relate.
"I feel like I'm a prisoner," he said.
• • •
As Tuttle rode in the backseat of the Trans-Am, its T-tops open and the wind roaring, he was crying, terrified.
He sat on his best friend's lap, surrounded by four men with guns intent on getting back $1,200 in lost drug money.
Rolling down U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes, the road was dark and abandoned, just a rural nowhere back in 1999, before suburbia inched in.
Tuttle, barely 16, had just endured a brutal battering by one of the drug dealers in the car. He believed he was in for more violence.
"I thought we were going to get our jaws broke or get jumped," he said.
The car reached the intersection with State Road 54. It should have turned left, to find the people who stole the money. Instead it turned right, toward the unknown.
Before long, Tuttle was tossed out of the car. Smith followed, raised a gun and shot him in the back of the head, according to prosecutors. Tuttle flinched to protect himself. The bullet grazed his fingers before it reached his brain.
The Trans-Am drove off.
Still conscious, he staggered up from a roadside ditch, unsure he'd been shot. His ears started ringing and his vision went blurry.
"Then a truck driver stopped and picked me up," he said.
A few hundred yards down the road, the Trans-Am stopped again. This time Tuttle's terrified friend, Robert Crawford, was pushed out of the car. He begged for his life, prosecutors said, as Smith shot him in the chest and the head.
He died quickly.
Tuttle doesn't let himself think about those moments.
"I couldn't even fathom what was going through Rob's mind after seeing me get shot," he said, "and knowing that he was next."
No doubt who shot him
Smith and the man driving the Trans-Am, Faunce Pearce, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder. Authorities say Pearce planned the shootings after his drug money was stolen.
They went to trial, separately, were convicted and sentenced to death.
But errors and technicalities led to many more court hearings. Pearce won a whole new trial and is no longer on death row.
Smith, who has versed himself in the law while in prison, got only his sentence vacated.
A second jury heard arguments last month about the events of Sept. 14, 1999, and by a 7-5 vote said Smith should be put to death.
But Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper found that prosecutors had failed to prove the aggravating factors that point to death, including whether Smith really fired the .40-caliber gun.
Tuttle didn't see who shot him, but he has no doubt it was the man sitting just a few rows away in court last week, wearing the red prison jumpsuit, looking solemn behind silver-framed glasses.
"Joey pulled the trigger," Tuttle said. "I don't care what anybody said, he was the only person outside of the car with me."
Smith still plans to appeal other aspects of his case, in hopes of winning a new trial.
Tuttle gets angry every time he reads a news account that portrays him and Crawford as drug dealers. Yes, he said, they knew what was happening that night: A sale of LSD was going down. But Tuttle said he passed the deal off to two friends.
"I didn't want to deal with it," he said.
But just for assisting, Tuttle said, he and Crawford stood to make a little money — $50 apiece.
The other two friends left with Pearce's money, Tuttle said, then returned empty-handed, claiming the cash had been stolen before they got the drugs. It was a double-cross.
When the group confronted Pearce with no drugs or money, he became enraged and summoned Smith and two others as armed backup while he decided his next move — the fateful ride in the Trans-Am.
Tuttle draws a distinction between his and Crawford's behavior and that of people like Pearce and Smith.
"We were kids," he said. "We didn't have access to a whole bunch of money."
Channeling his anger
In some ways, Tuttle's life stopped that night and never started moving again.
He receives a disability check of about $600 a month. It means he can't afford to have his own place. So he lives with his mom and a roommate.
He never finished high school, having dropped out after the shooting, which happened at the end of his freshman year. He has tried to earn his high school diploma several times, he said, but can't even pass the placement test.
His short-term memory is ruined.
For that reason, work isn't an option either.
"Employers don't like to tell you what to do several times a day," he said.
When he finds himself with a little extra money, he uses it to race motorcycles.
"I do dangerous things on them," he said. "I channel a lot of my anger into riding."
He's just waiting now for another piece of the justice he once had to be chipped away: Pearce's new trial, Smith's next maneuver.
He wishes they had to live on his $600 stipend, and he could have the thousands the state spends to imprison them.
He'd spend the money on another daredevil hobby, draft racing.
"I've been through so much," he said. "If I'm going to die, I might as well die doing something I like."
Molly Moorhead can be reached
or (727) 869-6245.