A weeping Joseph Smith apologized Tuesday for the abduction, rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia two years ago, telling a judge he had taken large amounts of cocaine and heroin that day in hopes of killing himself.
Smith told Circuit Judge Andrew Owens, who will sentence him to death or life in prison, “I do not ask for mercy for myself. The only thing I can see to give me a life sentence is for my family. I do not want to see them hurt any further.”
Carlie was abducted while walking home from school in February 2004, an attack that was caught on a car wash surveillance tape and broadcast nationwide.
Friends and even Smith’s brother said they recognized the burly mechanic grabbing the young girl’s wrist on the tape as Smith. A jury found the 39-year-old guilty last November and recommended by a 10-2 vote that he be executed.
Owens will ultimately sentence Smith on March 15. Under Florida law, he must give the jury’s death sentence recommendation “great weight.”
Smith told Owens during the second day of the sentencing hearing Tuesday that he had been a heroin addict since he was 19 and had unsuccessfully tried to quit several times. He said his wife had kicked him out of their home in January 2004, he had lost his job and, in the hours before abducting Carlie, he tried to overdose.
“I just wanted to die that day,” he said. But, he said, “I take responsibility of my crimes.”
Defense attorney Adam Tebrugge cited medical records as early as 1992 showing Smith was involuntarily admitted to a hospital. Smith had been arrested at least 13 times since 1993, mostly on drug offenses.
“The defendant repeatedly sought help for his problems, but was either denied help or received ineffective assistance for his problems,” Tebrugge said on the first of two days of hearings before Smith is sentenced.
Smith’s 15-year-old niece, identified only as KS because of her age, was called to testify to his character Monday. The girl said she enjoyed seeing Smith at family holidays and barbecues and walking dogs together.
However, Carlie’s friends and family members drew a sad picture Monday of their grief and desperation without her.
‘Stolen from her’
“Carlie’s future and life have been stolen from her and from her family,” aunt Lori Brucia read on behalf of the girl’s grandmother, Andrea Brucia. “We will never know her as a teenager.”
Lori read that Carlie’s family would never again see her infectious smile, take her to the beach, see her at Christmas or feel her arms around their waists.
“Our family is forever broken. Our nightmares about what you’ve done to her — our hearts will never heal,” she said. “Our family has been left with an overwhelming sadness and a void that pictures just can’t fill.”
Prosecutor Debra Riva read a letter from Carlie’s mother, Susan Schorpen, who could not appear because she’s jailed on drug charges in nearby Pinellas County.
Schorpen said she’s institutionalized herself three times, and was trying to self-medicate with drugs to numb the pain from losing Carlie.
“My heart, my mind and my body ache all the time. I will never have closure; it does not exist,” Schorpen wrote.
Noel Gilliland, Carlie’s former sixth-grade teacher, said two of the girl’s friends failed the sixth grade partly because they couldn’t focus on school after her slaying.
“These children are dealing with the loss of their friend everyday,” she said. “Even as eighth graders, Carlie's friends continue to struggle academically and emotionally.”
Smith sat expressionless through most of the proceedings in a yellow corrections jumpsuit, conferring occasionally with his lawyers.
He never testified during his three-week trial, but offered at the end to read the jury a letter admitting his crimes. Smith had told his brother while in jail where Carlie’s body was located. It was found five days after she disappeared in some brush on a church’s property.
Tebrugge would not say whether Smith would speak on his own behalf at Tuesday’s hearing.