1. Archive

Death penalty question explored

The possibility of the death penalty for a man accused of murder commanded center stage Monday as the trial of Faunce Levon Pearce began.

At the end of the day, a retired steelworker, a registered nurse and a Suncoast Parkway toll collector were among eight women and five men from across Pasco County who took an oath and were sworn in as jurors, with one alternate. Opening arguments are scheduled to start this morning.

Pearce, 39, is charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder in the Sept. 14, 1999, shootings of Robert Crawford, 17, and Stephen Tuttle, now 17, in what authorities say was a drug deal gone wrong. Crawford died where he fell along State Road 54. Tuttle has survived to testify.

As lawyers for both the prosecution and defense grilled 37 potential jurors, the impending possibility of the death penalty pervaded the courtroom.

Four potential jurors were summarily dismissed when they told Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson they could not, under any circumstances, recommend the death penalty.

If Pearce is convicted, prosecutors say, they will seek the death penalty, requiring a second phase to his trial in which jurors will be asked to make a recommendation to the judge of life in prison or death. Under state law, a judge must give great weight to the jury's recommendation.

"I'm pretty much telling you that if you, as a jury, recommend that Faunce Pearce die, that's how it's going to happen," prosecutor Phil Van Allen told prospective jurors. "Just because it's advisory, just because it's called a recommendation, don't buy into it. That's how it's going to be."

Van Allen repeatedly stressed his intention to push Pearce toward death row.

"We are talking, not figuratively here, about life and death," he told potential jurors. "It's that serious."

Pearce is accused of orchestrating a $1,000 LSD buy through Crawford and Tuttle, who were Land O'Lakes High School students. Investigators say he gave the teens the money, but they were duped by acquaintances and returned to Pearce without the money or the drugs.

An enraged Pearce summoned Lawrence Joey Smith, 24, and two others to help get his money back, according to the state's account. He drove the group in his car to a dark stretch of S.R. 54, where investigators say he stopped the car and Tuttle got out and was shot in the head by Smith.

Pasco County sheriff's deputies contend that after the shooting, Pearce drove his car a short way down the road, and stopped again. Crawford got out and Smith shot him fatally.

Smith was convicted in May of murder and attempted murder.

Although he is not accused of being the triggerman, Pearce also is charged with murder.

Pearce _ clad Monday in tan pants, a striped shirt and dark tie _ has pleaded innocent and places the blame entirely on Smith. In May, Pearce wrote to Swanson, calling Smith "an animal" and urging the judge to put him to death.