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CARLIE BRUCIA CASE // Guilty verdict, but no closure

Published Jan. 2, 2006

For Susan Schorpen, mother of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, the guilty verdicts Thursday against her daughter's killer brought only temporary solace.

"Thank you, Jesus," she said softly in the courtroom at Sarasota County Judicial Center, weeping in the embrace of supporters.

Moments later, standing outside before scores of reporters, Schorpen acknowledged that the pain is far from over, even if Joseph P. Smith is sentenced to death.

"He's going to get more years on appeals than my daughter had in life," she said. "And I've got a problem with that. Our laws have to change. He's been convicted. The evidence was overwhelming. He should be sentenced, and it should be taken care of that day."

She called Smith an "animal … a disgusting, perverted animal."

Asked about closure, Schorpen replied: "There's really no closure. My daughter is gone. I'm broken. I'll never hold her again. I'll never hear her laugh again."

Smith, 39, was convicted of first-degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping. As the murder verdict was read, he subtly shook his head up and down.

When he returns to court Nov. 28 for the penalty phase, his public defender will argue for life in prison.

Prosecutors, and a vocal segment of the public, want the death penalty.

John Peters, 61, wore a T-shirt that featured Smith's jail mugshot and called for his execution. "He killed a child, a defenseless child," he said. "She died with fear and terror and pain."

Carlie, a sixth-grader, was kidnapped from a carwash parking lot on Feb. 1, 2004, as she walked home after visiting a friend. Several days later, her half-naked body was found in the underbrush near a church. She had been raped and strangled … a grisly discovery that alarmed Sarasota.

As the nation looked on, the community rallied around the death, calling for change and better safeguards for children.

"We lost our little girl," one resident said during a memorial service attended by 1,500.

The story, propelled by the chilling video footage, became a national focus, outraging parents and lawmakers, who introduced federal and state legislation to crack down on probation violators.

As the trial neared, the focus returned to Smith.

Jurors agreed that it was his tattooed arm seen in a security camera video, leading Carlie away from the carwash. Smith was a car mechanic, drug user and felon. At the time of the abduction, he was on probation.

He was also a father of three young daughters.

Csaba Bokros, who ran the Montessori school attended by the Smith girls, showed up at the trial each day, searching for an explanation.

In the end, he found that only one word fit: "madness."

"I didn't see any emotion in his face," Bokros said. "Just as cold as can be."

Smith did not testify in his own defense in the trial, which began Nov. 7.

But in jailhouse conversations with family and friends, he blamed Carlie's death on his use of cocaine and heroin.

"I wasn't myself," he told a friend. "This is what this (expletive) did to me."

Prosecutors said Smith knew the jailhouse phone conversations were being recorded. Their case also featured the security video, DNA evidence linking Smith to Carlie and strands of hair found in his station wagon.

"All point to Joseph Smith as the person who committed these crimes," prosecutor Craig Schaeffer said during his closing argument Wednesday.

Smith's attorney, Adam Tebrugge, who had cast doubt on the evidence and faulted prosecutors for not seeking other suspects, chose not to make a final statement.

The jury of eight women and four men went into deliberation just after 10 a.m. Thursday and emerged five hours later with a decision.

Except for Schorpen's exclamation of "Thank you, Jesus," the courtroom was silent as the ver-dicts were read. Circuit Judge Andrew Owens promised to remove anyone who spoke out.

How jurors arrived at their decision is still unknown; they must return Nov. 28 for the sentencing phase.

"He'll get what he deserves," Carlie's stepfather, Steven Kansler, said as he left the courthouse.

Sarasota County Sheriff William Balkwill echoed that sentiment. "All of us want to see the justice that needs to be done," he said.

"Justice prevailed," said Tracy Valderrama who lives near Smith's old house. "I think it's pretty sick what he did."

Crist wants high court to decide on photos

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist filed an emergency motion on Thursday to prevent the release of autopsy photos and videotapes of Brucia.

A lower court judge had ruled in favor of Brucia's father, who requested that the photos and videotapes be kept out of the public record. But the Second District Court of Appeal issued a ruling Thursday overturning the lower court's decision.

Crist responded with his emergency motion. He wants the Florida Supreme Court to review the case before the photos and videotape are released.

The appeals court has "substituted its judgment over that of the elected representatives of the people of Florida," Crist stated.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

WHAT'S NEXT

Joseph Smith was convicted Thursday of murdering 11-year-old Carlie Brucia; he will return to court Nov. 28 for the sentencing phase of the trial. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The defense wants life in prison.

THE TIMELINE

Feb. 1, 2004: Carlie Brucia, 11, is abducted about 6:20 p.m. outside a carwash while walking home from a friend's house.

Feb. 2, 2004: Authorities issue a statewide "Amber Alert" for Carlie and release images of abduction taken from a surveillance camera.

Feb. 3, 2004: A telephone tip leads investigators to Joseph P. Smith, an unemployed auto mechanic. He is arrested and held on probation violation.

Feb. 6, 2004: Shortly before 1 a.m., after police discussions with Smith, Carlie's body is found outside Central Church of Christ. Smith is charged with murder and kidnapping.

Oct. 25, 2005: Jury selection begins in the Sarasota courtroom of Judge Andrew D. Owens. Smith faces three charges: first-degree murder, kidnapping and capital sexual battery.

Nov. 4: Smith's attorneys ask for a change of venue because of extensive pretrial publicity. Owens denies the motion, saying an impartial jury can be seated.

Nov. 17: A jury takes five hours to find Smith guilty on all charges.

SOURCE: Times archives and wires.

Times research by ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN