Jury finds Delmer Smith guilty in slaying of Kathleen Briles

ejohnson@bradenton.comAugust 10, 2012 

BRADENTON -- Curtis Briles wrapped an arm around his father, Dr. James Briles, who sat quietly in the back corner of courtroom 5A as the guilty verdict for his wife's killer was announced Thursday.

Also sitting quietly and staring ahead was Delmer Smith, 41, guilty of first-degree murder in the Aug. 3, 2009, slaying of 48-year-old Kathleen Briles.

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

Many clapped, a few cheered and one yelled, "Oh, yes," as the verdict was read.

Two were escorted out by bailiffs after failing to follow Judge Peter Dubensky's warning to restrain their reactions.

As each juror confirmed their decision with a simple "yes," observers breathed sighs of relief, quietly thanking the panel of six women and six men.

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

Outside the courtroom, there was more hugging and crying.

Homicide detectives were thanked and prosecutors were congratulated.

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, who sat in on the last day of testimony and closing statements, spoke on behalf of the Briles family, saying,

"The verdict is 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.

Now the family, attorneys and jurors are preparing for the penalty phase of the trial beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The state and defense will again have opportunity to present witnesses before the jury recommends a sentence of death by lethal injection or life in prison without parole.

Jurors will vote individually. If a majority -- seven jurors -- vote for the death penalty, that will be considered the official recommendation to Dubensky, who will ultimately determine Smith's sentence.

After the verdict was read, Smith told his attorneys he does not want to present mitigating testimony. Dubensky said Smith's decision could have been clouded by the jury's verdict.

If Smith changes his mind, the defense may present a neuropsychologist and three out-of-state witnesses.

The defense did not call any witnesses, including the defendant, during the guilt phase this week.

Prosecutors said they expect to call five witnesses, several of whom previously testified in the case, to prove aggravating factors in Briles' slaying. The state has its own psychologist for use as a rebuttal against the defense's potential witness.

A status hearing is scheduled for 8 a.m. Monday.

Circumstantial evidence key

In this case, jury selection took longer than testimony and deliberation.

Twelve jurors and three alternates were chosen last week from a pool of 190 people after four days of questioning. Testimony lasted three days. Final remarks from the lawyers and jury instructions took a couple of hours Thursday.

The jury reached a decision after less than three hours of deliberations.

During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Suzanne O'Donnell outlined what happened Aug. 3, 2009.

A happy Kathleen Briles got her hair done and went to show it to a friend. Briles had told her husband that she wanted to see him more. Dr. Briles promised to get home earlier and work fewer hours.

"By the end of that afternoon, she's lying face down on the floor cold, terrified, bound, gagged and bludgeoned to death," O'Donnell said.

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

"Delmer Smith, somewhere in his brain, said he had the right to do this to Kathleen Briles," she stated.

Daniel Hernandez, Smith's defense attorney, said in his opening and closing statements that the state's case was based on circumstantial evidence and testimony of several unreliable witnesses.

"Circumstantial evidence is great evidence," O'Donnell countered. "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."

During his closing arguments, Hernandez said despite the tragedy of Briles' death, jurors should not let sympathy affect their decision.

"There is no forensic evidence showing Mr. Smith was ever at the Briles' home," Hernandez said.

"All of that stolen merchandise is consistent with James Cellecz just as it was Mr. Smith," he added, referring to the man convicted of pawning items belonging to Briles.

Cellecz testified Wednesday that Smith gave him the items to pawn.

Hernandez said Cellecz and Joshua Hull, an inmate who testified that Smith threatened Cellecz, worked together in cooperating with the state. The two testified Wednesday that they received no compensation for taking the stand.

In the state's rebuttal, Iten said the defense's suggestion that Cellecz, instead of Smith, killed Kathleen Briles is unlikely.

Iten questioned why Cellecz would borrow Smith's phone, ensure Smith's prints would show up on a stolen book, plant evidence in the defendant's belongings and still 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."

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.

Smith, who is already serving a life sentence for a home invasion and kidnapping in Sarasota County, is charged in another case in which an elderly couple was tied up and beaten in their Bradenton home.

Steube said he hopes the State Attorney's Office pursues the charges in that case as well.

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

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