Judge hopes to seat Smith murder trial jury Thursday

ejohnson@bradenton.comAugust 2, 2012 

MANATEE -- Nearly 200 potential juror candidates later and four days into the Delmer Smith III murder trial, Judge Peter Dubensky hopes to seat 12 jurors and two alternates Thursday.

With only 59 potential jurors of the initial 150 passing through preliminary screening and death penalty qualification, Dubensky processed a smaller third panel of 40 people Wednesday afternoon.

The nearly 70 remaining panelists will be further interviewed beginning about 8:30 a.m. Thursday pertain

ing to their backgrounds and whether they can follow laws, among other issues related to the case, Dubensky said.

"We are meticulous about picking our jury," Dubensky told the third panel. "We move cautiously. We move deliberately. And we move thoroughly. And when we combine all these things, it takes time."

After consulting other 12th Circuit judges, Dubensky said the last few death penalty cases in both Manatee and Sarasota counties have had between 70 and 75 potential jurors from which to choose in the final phase.

Prosecutors in the case first said 34 would suffice because the state and defense each strike 10 panelists before picking 12 jurors and two alternates, but "against that backdrop" provided by Dubensky about previous trials, assistant state attorneys Brian Iten and Suzanne O'Donnell agreed to interview more people.

Smith's attorneys, Daniel Hernandez and Bjorn Brunvand, said the defense may request more than 10 peremptory strikes because several potential jurors have minor knowledge of the case.

Smith, 41, is charged with first-degree murder in the Aug. 3, 2009 death of Kathleen Briles, who was found bludgeoned to death, reportedly with an antique sewing machine in her Terra Ceia home.

The defendant sat in courtroom 5A Wednesday morning, wearing a light gray shirt and dress pants, as 39 jurors remaining in a second panel of 75 were questioned in smaller groups regarding their views of the death penalty. A few spectators were present.

The Briles family, who will be able to sit in on all phases of the trial, can listen to the proceedings in a private room away from potential jurors.

Before breaking for lunch Wednesday, Dubensky joked with those potential jurors that perhaps there will be a new reality television show titled "'Survivor: Jury Selection' because you're into the next phase."

Dubensky praised a male high school student and potential juror for giving the best explanation this week of how he would weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances -- if Smith is convicted -- to determine his sentencing recommendation.

Those who strongly oppose or support the death penalty, have extensive knowledge about this case or Smith, are well-acquainted with anyone involved in the case, or have an extreme hardship have been eliminated from the pool.

Before dismissing prospective jurors for the day, he reminded them that Smith is to be presumed innocent. He also said they should not read newspapers or watch television with content related to the case, nor should they research the case or discuss it with anyone.

"All of the information that you need to decide this case will be given to you in the courtroom," Dubensky said.

If Smith is found guilty of first-degree murder in a unanimous vote, he is eligible for Death Row or life in prison without parole.

For the death penalty to be the jury's recommended sentence, at least seven of the 12 panelists would have to vote that way. If six or fewer jurors vote for the death penalty, an imposition of life in prison without parole would be considered the jury's recommendation. Dubensky would ultimately make the final decision.

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

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