Dr. James Briles testifies how he found wife's body

ejohnson@bradenton.comAugust 7, 2012 

MANATEE -- Dr. James Briles showed a mixture of composure and emotion as he took the stand Monday morning in the murder trial of Delmer Smith III in the slaying of his wife, Kathleen.

Briles described his wife as an animal rescuer who was working to obtain her college degree when she was killed Aug. 3, 2009.

He stared at Smith as the 911 call he made after discovering his wife's body played in courtroom 5A.

"I just got home. My wife is on the floor. There is blood all over." Briles' recorded words filled the courtroom. "She's tied up. It looks like someone hit her in the head with something. I think she's already dead."

Briles' voice was filled with shock as he told the dispatch worker his hands were covered in blood. He goes on to say, "She's blue, she's cold."

The dispatch worker told Briles to avoid touching anything else on the scene and to meet sheriff's deputies outside.

During his testimony, Briles explained the layout of his house and property. His wife's car was parked in an unusual place, the house was locked and it was abnormally dark and quiet inside.

Briles said their dog had been anxious and whining when he arrived home just after 7:30 p.m. from making rounds at Manatee Memorial Hospital.

Briles saw a dark figure on the floor of the living room and thought a blanket had fallen off the couch.

"Then I realized it was her laying over there so I ran over there, called

her name, very breathless, 'Kathy, Kathy.' I found her lying on her stomach, her hands were bound behind her in duct tape, ankles bound in duct tape, gag around her face," Briles testified, displaying how her body was lying. "I rolled her over and I took my right hand and pulled the gag down. And she wasn't breathing. She was cold. There was no pulse and her face was deformed. Her left jaw was deformed. Her head was deformed, and I knew she was dead."

An antique, cast iron sewing machine was lying near her body, he said.

Briles explained that the house had been ransacked. There were dents on the floor and walls and blood on the floor and several pieces of furniture. His wife's glasses were laying near a rocking chair. Briles estimated $30,000 to $40,000 worth of jewelry was taken.

Gray duct tape was missing from a shed out back.

Just two weeks ago, Briles said, he found his wife's house keys while raking leaves near the shed.

"They've been there for three years," he said.

Assistant State Attorney Suzanne O'Donnell questioned Briles about a Minnie Mouse key chain, necklace, medical encyclopedia, coin set and watch, all of which were taken from the home and connected to Smith.

Briles was accompanied by several family members sitting in the back corner of the court room.

Defense attorneys did not cross-examine Dr. Briles.

Processing the scene

The deputy who first arrived on the scene testified to seeing a shocked Briles covered in blood.

"He was white as a ghost," said Andrew Hasty. "All he kept repeating was, 'She's dead. She's dead.'"

Hasty said he and a colleague cleared the house. Kathleen Briles was laying face up, her arms behind her back and her legs in front of her, he said.

"There was a lot of blood," Hasty said. "Some of it had dried up and some of it was wet."

Others at the scene echoed the deputy's description of the body laying bound on the floor.

Richard Talbot, sheriff's office crime scene unit manager, discussed blood stain patterns at the scene, noting most of the blood was on the floor and around Briles' head, neck and chest.

"Looking at the types of stains that are here, the point of origin is going to be very close to the ground," Talbot said, pointing to a photo on a projector screen that showed blood adjacent to Briles' body, on the sewing machine and at the base of a couch.

Crime scene technicians explained how they processed the house, duct tape and other evidence for prints.

Talbot said Briles' car was left unlocked. Her purse was in the passenger seat and groceries were in the trunk.

Dr. Wilson Broussard, medical examiner, visited the crime scene and examined the body, which already showed signs of rigor mortis, at 12:20 a.m.

Broussard told the court that an autopsy showed Briles died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Briles sustained depressed skull fractures, jaw fractures, abdominal bleeding and multiple cut and bruises, he said. And she was bound before she was beaten to death.

Some of her injuries, Broussard testified, were "consistent with being struck directly with the sewing machine."

Jurors examined the 23-pound, cast iron sewing machine, which was entered into evidence.

Broussard also said Briles was struck at least four to five times on each side of her head and was probably lying facedown during most of the attack.

"The scalp was lacerated several times," Broussard said. "She bled extensively."

When asked by the defense, Broussard said he could not identify specifically which blow was first, nor which blow was fatal.

Also called to the stand Monday morning was Kathleen Briles' friend, Christie Gish, who saw Briles hours before she was killed.

Briles visited the woman at a 7-Eleven on Manatee Avenue West, where Gish was a manager.

The manager at a Publix in Palmetto, where Kathleen Briles bought groceries about 3:40 p.m. that day, testified to surveillance footage that showed Briles checking out and leaving the parking lot in the direction of her Terra Ceia home.

Lawyers present strategies

During opening statements, Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten explained that the prosecutors will use cell phone records, stolen items found in connection with Smith and testimony to prove Smith's guilt.

Iten said premeditation was shown by Smith binding Briles' mouth, wrists and ankles as well as leaving the room to "seek out a lethal weapon."

Iten said before Smith delivered the fatal blow, "there was time to reflect."

Daniel Hernandez, defense attorney, said the state's evidence is circumstantial and "makes Mr. Smith a suspect, but does not prove beyond reasonable doubt."

Hernandez also said some witnesses lack credibility. He specifically pointed out James Cellecz, who pawned a necklace allegedly given to him by Smith, which belonged to Briles.

"There will be no question Mrs. Briles was murdered, but the question will remain unanswered who killed her," Hernandez said.

Testimony will resume at 8:30 a.m. today in Judge Peter Dubensky's courtroom at the Manatee County Judicial Center.

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime, Use #DelmerSmith when discussing this story.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service