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Court nullifies death sentence

A killer on death row should get another chance at life, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Lawrence Joey Smith, 26, was found guilty in 2001 in the September 1999 murder of 17-year-old Robert Crawford and the attempted murder of Stephen Tuttle, then 16. Authorities say the two got involved in a drug buy but lost the buyer's money and never produced the drugs.

Smith was the gunman for would-be buyer Faunce Levon Pearce, 41. The two men drove the teens to a dark stretch of State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes and ordered them from the car, where Smith shot them each in the head.

Tuttle survived.

Pearce and Smith were convicted at separate trials, and both were sentenced to death.

But the Supreme Court on Thursday agreed with Smith's attorneys that Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson erred during the sentencing phase of the trial by misinterpreting the law to remark that in light of a jury's recommendation of death, he had no choice but to hand down that sentence to Smith.

Swanson's understanding of the state's death penalty rules and his reliance on a remark one witness made _ claiming Smith announced the teens' deaths marked "That's 12 and 13" killings _ were incorrect, the Supreme Court ruled.

A hearing should be held, and a judge should reconsider the death penalty, the Supreme Court ruled. One Supreme Court Justice, Barbara J. Pariente, went further.

Pariente, in a dissenting opinion, argued the entire sentencing phase of the trial should be redone because of the witness' claim that Smith said he had killed many people, giving jurors the impression that Smith was a serial killer.

The court rejected arguments that Smith's convictions should be overturned or that Swanson should have declared a mistrial after prosecutor Phil Van Allen slammed the murder weapon on a table in front of Smith, startling the jury.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan on Thursday said Smith will remain in his cell on death row at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford until after all hearings have been conducted.