PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Public defender: Decision in Smith case was correct

BRADENTON — Public Defender Larry Eger said Monday he is ready to defend in court his office’s decision that it cannot represent murder suspect Delmer Smith III on a murder charge stemming from the killing of Kathleen Briles.

Last week, the state agency charged with taking on judicial appointments when public defenders see a conflict in representing a defendant questioned the motive behind Eger’s office not taking the murder case.

Smith, 38, is facing charges in a half-dozen home invasion attacks in Sarasota and Manatee counties, during which authorities say he bound and beat several women in their homes — and, in Briles’ case, bludgeoned her to death with a sewing machine.

Detectives in both counties believe Smith is responsible for as many as 11 attacks on women in their homes during a crime spree between February and August last year.

On Aug. 3, Dr. James Briles came home to find his wife beaten to death on their living room floor. Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives charged Smith with murder after finding items stolen from the Briles’ home in a storage unit under Smith’s control.

Investigators captured Smith after his involvement in a Venice bar fight in August, which set off an investigation that led authorities to the storage bin, which also held property from several Sarasota home invasion attacks.

Smith has been found indigent by the court in his various cases, but attorneys from the public defenders office and state Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel disagree over who should take Smith’s murder case.

Circuit Judge Debra Riva has pulled the 12th Circuit Public Defender’s Office off the Briles case after the agency said it is already representing a man who is a witness in Smith’s murder case.

The public defender’s office represents James Cellecz on felony charges stemming from the investigation into Briles’ killing, so the agency cannot also represent Smith, the public defender’s office argued.

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

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 regional counsel to take the case.

But regional counsel has objected in writing, 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 in November on the pawn shop charges.

Reiter went on to question if the public defender’s motive for asking off the case was the conflict in representing Cellecz.

“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.”

Public Defender Larry Eger called Reiter’s objection “incomplete,” saying his agency represented Cellecz beginning in May. Court records show Cellecz, who is a registered sex offender, was arrested on drug and failure to report charges unrelated to Smith’s cases, long before Smith’s arrest in August. Reiter could not be reached for comment.

Reiter’s implication that the public defender’s office asked off the case for any other reason than conflict also drew a response from Eger. The public defender felt it delved into opinion rather than sticking to the law.

“There is editorializing going on there,” Eger said. “We choose the hardest cases because we have the people most qualified to handle them. But we are bound by the law not to take a case if there is a conflict.”

Riva canceled a hearing scheduled today to hash out who is going to defend Smith in the Briles case, after the attorneys had logistical problems. The hearing has not been rescheduled but will take place later, according to Riva’s office.

Meanwhile, Smith is scheduled for arraignment in Briles killing on April 9, which Riva canceled last Friday because of the dispute between regional counsel and the public defender. An arraignment is a key moment in a first-degree murder case, as it triggers a 45-day window for prosecutors to decide whether to seek the death penalty.