TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - More than 17 years after 11-year-old Carlie Brucia was abducted and murdered in Sarasota County, the attorney general’s office acknowledged this week that convicted killer Joseph Smith should receive a new sentencing hearing.
In filings Monday at the Florida Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office said rulings last year by justices in other cases require that Smith and four other convicted murderers be resentenced.
The filing in the Smith case was the latest in a series of legal twists in a 2004 murder that drew national attention. A circuit judge in April 2020 resentenced Smith to death, but the Supreme Court subsequently issued rulings in two other cases that called that sentence into question.
In a three-page filing Monday, the attorney general’s office made clear it was begrudgingly acknowledging that Smith’s case should be sent back to circuit court for a new sentencing hearing. The move does not affect Smith’s conviction in the murder and sexual assualt of Carlie Brucia.
"While the state feels that it is patently unjust for a resentencing to be required under the circumstances and the state has concerns about the impact of the decision on a trial court’s traditional power to reconsider its prior rulings, the state acknowledges Jackson and Okafor are controlling precedent in this case. Accordingly, this case should be remanded to the trial court to conduct a capital resentencing," Assistant Attorney General Christina Pacheco wrote, referring to the two cases decided in November by the Supreme Court involving convicted murderers Michael James Jackson and Bessman Okafor.
Joseph Smith in court
The attorney general’s office also filed similar documents Monday about new sentencing hearings for convicted murderers Justin Ryan McMillian, Donald Lenneth Banks, Gerald Delane Murray and Tiffany Ann Cole.
The filings stem from a series of complicated death-penalty developments that began in early 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court found Florida’s death-penalty system unconstitutional because it gave too much authority to judges, instead of juries, in imposing death sentences.
The Florida Supreme Court in October 2016, in a case known as Hurst v. State, interpreted and applied the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The state court required unanimous jury recommendations before death sentences could be imposed and dealt with a critical issue of jurors finding what are known as "aggravating factors" that can justify death sentences.
The state Supreme Court later said its decision in Hurst v. State should be applied retroactively to cases going back to 2002. That created a need to hold new sentencing hearings for many inmates in death-penalty cases, including in the case of Smith, who was sentenced to death in 2006 after a 10-2 jury recommendation. The Supreme Court in 2018 ordered a resentencing for Smith.
But in January 2020, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling that backed away from its decision in Hurst v. State and the requirement of unanimous jury recommendations in death-penalty cases.
After that ruling, prosecutors sought to reinstate Smith’s death sentence, which had remained unresolved. Circuit Judge Charles Roberts in April 2020 reinstated the death sentence.
In two rulings in November, however, the state Supreme Court rejected requests to similarly reinstate death sentences in the Jackson and Okafor cases because earlier court orders had required them to receive new hearings.
"We hold that our judgment vacating Okafor’s death sentence is final, that neither we nor the trial court can lawfully reinstate that sentence, and that resentencing is therefore required," justices wrote in the Okafor case. "In reaching this conclusion, we acknowledge the burden that resentencing proceedings will place on the victims of Okafor’s crimes. We also acknowledge the consequences for the victims in similar cases that will be governed by our decision here. Nonetheless, our holding is compelled by applicable law."
While the attorney general’s office made the filings Monday in the Smith case and the other four cases, the Supreme Court had not taken action on the filings as of Tuesday afternoon, according to court dockets.