Tangible evidence, experts to play large role in Smith murder trial

Tangible evidence, experts to play large role in Smith trial

ejohnson@bradenton.comJuly 29, 2012 

MANATEE -- Three years after Dr. James Briles found his wife, Kathleen Briles, beaten to death in their Terra Ceia home, Delmer Smith III is going to trial on first-degree murder charges.

Smith, 41, could face the death penalty if found guilty of the Aug. 3, 2009 slaying of Briles. An antique sewing machine found next to her body was later identified by police as the weapon allegedly used to bludgeon her to death.

With jury selection set to begin Monday, after Judge Peter Dubensky denied motions last week to postpone the trial, the court looks to find 12 jurors who have not already formed a decision of Smith's guilt or innocence about the case through prior knowledge or publicity.

Brian Iten, assistant state attorney, expects jury selection to take several days.

After that, the guilt phase of the trial begins where the state and defense present witnesses and other evidence to argue their cases. Iten expects this phase to take about a week.

Phone records, which show 88 phone calls to and from

Smith's cell phone the day Briles was killed, are expected to play a large role in the case. Using cell phone tower information, Smith was placed within a mile of the Briles' home that day. Those records, along with people who allegedly spoke with Smith that day, will be presented by the state.

Other tangible evidence obtained from the defendant are a Minnie Mouse keychain, medical encyclopedia, necklace and coin set, all of which have been linked to Kathleen Briles.

The rare keychain was given to the victim by Dr. Briles as a wedding anniversary gift. It held a key for a car previously owned and sold by Smith, police said.

The book, found in a storage bin belonging to Smith, was identified by Dr. Briles and his son who said the encyclopedia was missing from the family's collection. A girlfriend of Smith's told detectives she saw the book in his car.

Briles' daughter identified the necklace as one she had borrowed from her mother on four special occasions.

The coin set, given to Dr. Briles by a patient, was matched with the same collection given to one of his employees.

Fingerprints from related items will be compared with fresh finger and palm prints taken Thursday from Smith.

State's other witnesses, evidence

Employees from law enforcement agencies in Manatee, Sarasota and Pinellas counties and documents of Smith's criminal history -- including arrest warrants, affidavits and probation information -- will also be presented. Expert witnesses from the medical examiner's office, as well as DNA, crime scene and latent prints analysts are listed.

Iten said he expects to call more than 40 witnesses to the stand.

That number might include those who lived in the Briles' neighborhood and members of the Briles family. Dr. James Briles is expected to testify early in the trial about finding his wife's body. Two of the victim's children will identify items allegedly stolen from the Briles' home. Dubensky granted the family full access into the courtroom despite their role as witnesses in the case.

The state has also listed a woman with whom Smith lived in Venice and who turned over Smith's property, which included a laptop stolen from a previous home invasion, as a possible witness.

James Cellecz, who was convicted in April 2011 for pawning items Smith allegedly stole from the Briles' home, is expected to testify. Pawn shop employee statements, transactions and photos are among the state's discovery.

Prosecutors intend to call Joshua Hull, an inmate who Smith allegedly asked to give a "threatening" message from him to Cellecz, to the stand.

Defense uses expert opinions

Smith, who pleaded not guilty in April 2010 to the murder charge, is represented by Daniel Hernandez, special regional defense attorney.

Smith could not be represented by the local public defender's office because it was assigned the related case of Cellecz.

Hernandez is relying on a knot-tying expert to discuss the alleged similarity between the binding of Briles and other victims who were "hog-tied" during home invasions in which Smith is charged.

Smith is already serving a life sentence after being convicted in a home invasion case in Sarasota County. Smith is also charged in three similar incidents in Sarasota County and another in Manatee County. In these crimes, the suspect targeted older females, wore dark clothing and a mask, demanded money and jewelry for "crack," and tied victims' hands and feet with electrical cords found inside the victims' residences.

The defense also had Dr. Hyman Eisenstein, a neuropsycologist from Miami, conduct a personal evaluation of Smith.

Hernandez said Smith originally was not interested in using mental mitigation, but recently agreed to the meeting.

During last week's hearing, Iten raised concerns that Hernandez did not depose a majority of the state's witnesses, including the medical examiner and crime scene technicians.

"I have tried cases before without deposing those witnesses," Hernandez told the judge. "Mr. Smith may have input he has not shared before."

After a recess that allowed Hernandez to speak with his client, the defense said if the trial was delayed, he would depose those witnesses. Dubensky denied that motion.

No attorney can reference facts not in evidence, personal opinions of the case or immigration status of witnesses.

The defense cannot elicit hearsay from witnesses regarding Smith's out-of-court statements.

And Dubensky granted the state's wishes to exclude the victim's previous alcohol or substance abuse and one witness's history of sex crimes from the jury trial.

Death penalty remains a possibility

Despite Smith's defense arguing that Florida's death penalty is unconstitutional, Dubensky will allow that as a possible sentence if the jury finds Smith guilty. If convicted, Iten said he expects the penalty phase to last a few days.

Florida's death row is occupied by more than 400 inmates, two of which were convicted in Manatee County. Melvin Trotter was sentenced to death May 18, 1987, for fatally stabbing Virgie Langford, 70, during a robbery at her Palmetto grocery store in June 1986. Daniel Burns Jr. was sentenced to death June 2, 1988, for fatally shooting Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeffrey Young with the trooper's own revolver during an August 1987 traffic stop on Interstate 75.

The most recent death penalty case tried in Manatee County was that of Blaine Ross who in May pleaded no contest in the 2004 murder of his parents in exchange for life in prison without parole.

Judge Peter Dubensky will preside over the trial in courtroom 5-A at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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