Attorney dispute stalls murder case

BRADENTON — Finding a defense attorney for indigent murder suspect Delmer Smith III is proving difficult, and has stalled court proceedings in the Kathleen Briles murder case.

Smith, 38, had been transported to Manatee County from the Sarasota County jail to be arraigned Friday on a first-degree murder charge accusing him of bludgeoning Briles to death with a sewing machine in her Terra Ceia home Aug. 3.

He also is facing rape and home invasion robbery charges stemming from four attacks on women in their Sarasota homes last year, and Friday, Bradenton police arrested him on a home invasion robbery charge in the April 21 attack on a 61-year-old woman and her 62-year-old husband in their home. Both were bound and severely beaten.

Authorities suspect Smith is responsible for as many as 12 attacks in Sarasota and Manatee counties, including many in which women were bound and beaten in their homes.

Smith was captured after his involvement in a bar fight in August, which set off an investigation that led authorities to a storage bin under his control that held property from several of the home invasions, and the Briles home.

But Smith’s arraignment in the Briles case was postponed Friday morning as the two agencies that handle the majority of indigent cases in Manatee are in disagreement over who should take his case.

The 12th Circuit Public Defender’s Office, which serves Manatee and Sarasota, was initially appointed to handle the case, but the agency filed court papers saying it could not defend Smith because of a conflict.

The public defender’s office already represents another man on felony charges stemming from the investigation into Briles’ killing, so the agency cannot also represent Smith, the public defender’s office has argued in court filings.

Manatee sheriff’s detectives arrested a man they called an “associate” of Smith in November after he admitted to pawning pieces of jewelry owned by Kathleen Briles.

James Cellecz, 32, told detectives Smith had given him the items to sell, but claimed he had no knowledge of the attack on Briles. Detectives last month arrested Cellecz on charges of dealing in stolen property and defrauding a pawn broker, and charged Smith with first-degree murder in Briles’ death.

The public defender’s office has represented Cellecz on prior felony cases, and also took the case on the pawn shop charges. The public defender’s office argued that the representation of Cellecz caused a conflict in representing Smith.

A judge found that such a conflict exists, and as is routinely done, appointed the Florida Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel to take the case.

But regional counsel has asked Circuit Judge Debra Riva to reconsider, arguing that the public defender’s office had been appointed to represent Smith on a battery charge stemming from the bar fight, and the Sarasota home invasion charges, before Cellecz was arrested.

“Mr. Cellecz was arrested on Nov. 9, 2009, and the public defender was appointed on Nov. 12, 2009, three months after their appointment to Mr. Smith,” Assistant Regional Counsel Michael Reiter wrote in a motion filed Thursday objecting to his office’s appointment.

Reiter argued the public defender’s office chose to represent Cellecz instead of Smith because of the number of cases against Smith and the seriousness of the charges he faces. Larry Eger, the public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit, could not be reached for comment on this story.

“It is understandable that the public defender would prefer to represent Mr. Cellecz on two felony charges and withdraw off Mr. Smith, who is charged with six cases, including five first-degree felonies and a capital murder,” Reiter’s brief states.

“However, displeasure with charges or the number of cases is not a reason to withdraw.”

The dispute between the public defender’s office and regional counsel is expected to be decided by Riva during a rescheduled arraignment in the Briles murder case set for April 9.

An arraignment is a key moment in a murder case, as it triggers the start of a 45-day window for prosecutors to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

Four days after Smith’s arraignment, Cellecz is scheduled April 13 to enter into a plea agreement with the state on the charges stemming from the pawning of Briles’ jewelry, according to court records.

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