Delmer Smith found guilty of first-degree murder in death of Kathleen Briles

ejohnson@bradenton.comAugust 9, 2012 

BRADENTON -- Delmer Smith III on Thursday was found guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of Kathleen Briles in her Terra Ceia home in 2009.

The jury deliberated for more than two hours before reaching a unanimous verdict.

The trial now moves to a penalty phase. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Smith, who authorities say terrorized Manatee and Sarasota counties in a string of violent home invasion robberies that culminated with Briles' death.

Smith, 41, who already is serving a life sentence for a violent kidnapping and home invasion robbery in Sarasota, showed no emotion when the verdict was read.

Others in the courtroom responded with clapping, sighs of relief and crying. Some in the gallery were escorted out of the courtroom.

Dr. James Briles, husband of Kathleen, sat quietly as his youngest son, Curtis, wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

Those in the gallery - including Briles' family and other victims of Smith - held hands and gripped each other's knees.

As each juror confirmed their decision with a simple "yes," viewers breathed sighs of relief, quietly thanking each juror.

A female juror became overwhelmed by emotion, her face reddening as she wiped away tears.

Outside the courtroom hugs, "thank yous," and "congratulations" were shared among family, friends and law enforcement officers.

A homicide detective congratulated the prosecutors as they carted out their files.

There will be a status hearing Monday morning, and the penalty phase of the trial will start at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said the verdict was just.

"It means hopefully he'll never see the streets of Manatee or Sarasota counties or the state of Florida or this country again," Steube said.

"This is a predator who's been in our community, and he's off the street," he said.

The sheriff said he hopes prosecutors will pursue charges in other cases in which Smith is the suspect.

The 12-member panel – six women and six men – got the case shortly after 11 a.m., after three days of witness testimony prosecutors say made a strong circumstantial case against Smith in the slaying of Kathleen Briles on Aug. 3, 2009.

Attorneys made their closing arguments Thursday morning.

The jury was considering whether Smith is guilty of first-degree murder in the bludgeoning death of Briles, guilty of a lesser charge or not guilty. If found guilty of first-degree murder, Smith could be sentenced to die by lethal injection after the trial moves to a penalty phase.

In the prosecutors’ closing statement, Assistant State Attorney Suzanne O’Donnell told jurors, “Today is the day of reckoning. Today is the day that you show him he must pay for his actions.”

O’Donnell opened with a timeline of Aug. 3, 2009, the day Briles was bludgeoned to death in her Terra Ceia home with an antique sewing machine.

“Aug. 3 was a normal day - a hot sunny, Florida summer day and Kathleen Briles was happy,” O’Donnell said.

Briles got her hair done and went to show a friend. She had told her husband, Dr. James Briles, that she wanted to see him more. He promised to get home earlier and work fewer hours.

“By the end of that afternoon, she’s lying face down on a floor cold, terrified, bound, gagged and bludgeoned to death,” O’Donnell said. “She took her last breath on this earth lying on the floor.”

O’Donnell said when Smith ambushed Briles in the driveway, bound her in her living room, searched the house for a weapon and hit her multiple times, he committed premeditated murder.

“Delmer Smith made that decision,” O’Donnell said. “Delmer Smith, somewhere in his brain, said he had the right to do this to Kathleen Briles that day.”

To combat the defense’s opening statement in which Daniel Hernandez said the state’s case was only circumstantial, O’Donnell said that should be enough.

“Circumstantial evidence is great evidence,” O’Donnell said. “The only evidence that is not circumstantial is a witness. How many murder victims do you think are going to come in here and take the stand? None.”

O’Donnell said the jury must decide if all of the evidence fits together. She walked back through the key chain, coin set, medical encyclopedia, watch set, Minnie Mouse key chain and necklace that were stolen from Briles’ home and connected to Smith.

Portions of phone calls from Smith, who was in jail, to his girlfriend Martha Tejeda were played in which Smith asks Tejeda to remove a duffel bag from his storage unit.

O’Donnell also said Smith’s cell phone was tracked to within 1.25 miles of Briles’ home at 3:44 p.m., about the time Briles should have gotten home from Publix.

Defense attorney Daniel Hernandez reminded the jury that the burden of proof lays on the state and that closing arguments should not be seen as evidence.

“What happened to Mrs. Briles was absolutely terrible and unless we have lived through that experience we can’t tell the Brileses we know how they feel,” Hernandez said. “As jurors you are being told to basically set aside any feeling you have of sympathy … and make a determined effort to make your decision strictly on the evidence that’s been presented.”

Hernandez continued that the evidence is circumstantial.

“All of that stolen merchandise is consistent with James Cellecz just as it was Mr. Smith,” Hernandez said, referring to the man convicted of pawning items belonging to Briles.

“There is no forensic evidence showing Mr. Smith was ever at the Briles’ home,” he added.

Cellecz testified Wednesday that Smith had given him the items before they were pawned.

Hernandez said Cellecz and Joshua Hull, an inmate who testified that Smith threatened Cellecz, worked together in cooperating with the state for their benefit.

Cellecz and Hull testified Wednesday that they received no compensation for taking the stand. Noting their knowledge of the judicial system as convicted felons, Hernandez asked jurors to question the credibility of those witnesses. Hernandez pointed out Cellecz got a short sentence for a felony probation violation.

“Not only did he get a sentence ridiculously below the guidelines, he didn’t get charged with murder,” Hernandez said of Cellecz.

Hernandez presented the jurors with “snapshots of innocence” in the state’s case against Smith. With the exception of Cellecz’s testimony, there is no proof Smith accompanied him to a pawn shop where Cellecz sold Briles’ jewelry, Hernandez said. Cellecz also testified to having access to Smith’s property during the defendant’s incarceration.

“The state is suggesting it’s more likely Mr. Smith committed this crime because he is stronger (than Cellecz), he can lift the sewing machine” Hernandez said, reminding jurors Cellecz raised the 23-pound murder weapon above his head while on the stand Wednesday.

In the state’s response, Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten countered the idea that Cellecz actually murdered Briles.

“The defense is saying that James Cellecz is a sophisticated criminal who framed Delmer Smith by planting evidence with the defendant’s belongings,” said Iten, suggesting that Cellecz would have needed to ensure: Smith leaving his print inside the medical journal; a girlfriend, unknown to Cellecz, calling Smith’s cell phone while in Terra Ceia; and getting an inmate to conspire with Cellecz in testimony.

Iten questioned how a “criminal mastermind” of that level would pawn a piece of jewelry the day after stealing it from Briles.

“How do you reconcile those two things? Well you can’t,” Iten said. “That’s because Delmer Smith wasn’t framed by James Cellecz. Cellecz was duped into taking the jewelry.”

Iten said it is unreasonable that Cellecz could have taken Smith’s cell phone in a narrow time period between calls of conversation that day.

Iten also questioned that if Cellecz committed the crime, why did Smith have the key chains, watch set and coins.

“Draw on your life experience. People, when they go places get keepsakes,” Iten told the jurors. “The person who committed this crime wanted keepsakes too – little remembrances.”

In closing, Iten reminded jurors to remember the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt.”

“Is it reasonable that the defendant is the unluckiest man in the world?” Iten asked.

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