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Stepdad: "Carlie has been heard'

Published Mar. 16, 2006

The grainy image of the burly man in the mechanic's uniform grabbing the little girl is burned into the collective memory of many who watched the scene over and over on the TV news.

Carlie Brucia's disappearance and slaying captivated the nation more than two years ago. The man convicted of abducting, raping and killing her, former auto mechanic Joseph P. Smith, stood before a judge Wednesday and was sentenced to death.

The images were captured by a carwash security camera, released to the media and broadcast on TV. Carlie's body was found four nights later on the grounds of a nearby church.

During a 90-minute hearing Wednesday, Carlie's stepfather, Steven Kansler, closed his eyes at times and buried his face in his hands as state Circuit Judge Andrew Owens read the details of the crimes before sentencing Smith.

"I thought I'd feel a lot different," Kansler said afterward. "But it still hurts. It doesn't change anything. I just feel that Carlie has been heard. Her soul is gone now. Now it's just a matter of time to wait to watch Joe Smith die."

Absent from the courtroom was Carlie's mother, Susan Schorpen, who is in jail in Pinellas County on drug and prostitution charges. She has said the pain of losing her daughter led her to institutionalize herself three times and take drugs to numb the pain.

Owens sentenced Smith to death for the first-degree murder conviction and two life terms for related convictions of kidnapping and capital sexual battery.

The same jury that convicted Smith recommended by a vote of 10-2 that he be executed. Owens was required by law to give "great weight" to that recommendation.

"The scales of life and death tilt unequivocally toward the side of death," Owens told Smith at the end of the 90-minute hearing. "May God have mercy on your soul."

Carlie's aunt, Laurie Brucia, said it was a hollow victory.

"A lot of people want to ask me if I'm happy with the verdict," she said. "I have to say I don't think you're ever happy. Happy would be having Carlie beside me and giving her a hug and a kiss and watching her grow up and celebrating her 13th birthday (Thursday), which will never happen. That would be happiness."

During a hearing last month, Smith tearfully apologized for his crimes, telling Owens that he took large amounts of heroin and cocaine, trying to kill himself, before he abducted Carlie on Feb. 1, 2004. Smith said he didn't remember much about that day and asked Owens to spare him for the sake of his family.

But on Wednesday, Owens discounted those arguments. He said Carlie suffered "unspeakable terror and physical suffering" at Smith's hands.

Carlie's body was found four days after her disappearance on the grounds of a Sarasota church. News of the crime shook the community, and hundreds turned out for memorial services for the little girl.

Prosecutor Debra Johnes Riva had dismissed arguments by defense attorney Adam Tebrugge that Smith was depressed and in the throes of a raging drug addiction for which he had previously sought help. Tebrugge also argued that Smith could lead a productive life in prison and be a positive influence on his three daughters if he was spared.

"The evidence was absolutely overwhelming that Joseph Smith committed this crime, and it was overwhelming that of all cases, it deserved the death penalty based on the heinous crimes he committed against Carlie Brucia," Riva said Wednesday.

Owens said the aggravating factors far outweighed the mitigating factors for the death penalty. He cited the fact that Smith was convicted felon, killed Carlie during the commission of a kidnapping and rape, and took steps to cover up the crime. He also noted that the crimes were especially heinous, recounting how Smith bound her hands, raped her and then strangled her with something he put around her neck from behind.

During the hearing last month, Smith spoke publicly for the first time, saying, "I take responsibility of my crimes. I don't understand how this could have happened. . . . Every day I think about what I did and beg God for forgiveness."

Joseph's Smith's mother, Patricia Davis, left the courtroom in tears afterward and did not comment.