Jury selected for Delmer Smith trial; testimony starts Monday

MANATEE -- Laughs were had and tears were shed Thursday in courtroom 5A as a pool of about 70 people was narrowed down to 12 jurors and three alternates for the Delmer Smith III murder trial.

Eight women and seven men were selected after 10 potential jurors were struck in cause challenges, before both the state and defense made peremptory strikes.

The jury will be sworn in at 8:30 a.m. Monday and opening statements will follow.

Smith is accused of killing Kathleen Briles on Aug. 3, 2009, in her Terra Ceia home.

The 15 jurors were chosen from an overall pool of 190 potential jurors after four days of questioning.

"I'm sure you can understand after three days of being here that our goal is to select 14 people who can be as fair and as impartial as possible to deliver a just verdict in this case," said Judge Peter Dubensky. "It can be very tedious."

Dubensky later decided to have an additional alternate to prevent any unforeseen issues with the jury during the next two weeks.

To give the jurors a break after an intense week of questioning, Dubensky is not calling them back today. Lawyers can use that time to obtain any additional depositions or file additional motions before the trial begins.

Today also marks the three-year anniversary of the death of Kathleen Briles, whom Smith allegedly bludgeoned to death with an antique sewing machine. Her husband, Dr. James Briles, found the victim's body in their Terra Ceia home.

"It marks three years, three very long years," said Briles, who is set to testify next week.

He said the family is busy with the trial and does not have a special service planned. Briles said he is meeting with an attorney Friday.

Family of Kathleen Briles watched jury selection in a private room this week and will be allowed in the

courtroom for the remaining proceedings. Briles said he, his children and Kathleen Briles' sisters plan to attend each day.

"The jury has been selected with a lot of care just like it should have been," Briles said. "Everything is being done for a fair trial and we all appreciate that. The lawyers have all bent over backward to make the sure the process is appropriate."

Briles thanked the community, law enforcement officers and those involved with the trial for the support and kindness shown to the family.

About 70 potential jurors remained Thursday morning after three days of briefing, preliminary screening and death penalty questioning.

Dubensky explained the legal process of a trial to potential jurors.

Assistant state attorneys Brian Iten and Suzanne O'Donnell assume the burden of proving Smith, 41, guilty beyond reasonable doubt in the slaying of Kathleen Briles.

If the jury unanimously convicts Smith of either premeditated or felony first-degree murder, the trial will continue to a penalty phase.

During that phase, prosecutors would present aggravating factors in the case. Smith's attorneys, Daniel Hernandez and Bjorn Brunvand, would be able to present mitigating circumstances to explain their client's actions.

He explained that unless "the aggravated circumstances are such, you would believe them to be sufficient to recommend death," jurors should recommend life in prison without parole.

If Smith is convicted, the judge will take into account the jury's sentence recommendation and deliver a final decision.

Dubensky also alleviated concerns of jurors being mentioned or shown in the media.

Iten questioned the potential jurors first, asking them about their life experiences.

Tissues were passed out as panelists recalled crimes in which they or their immediate family were involved as the victim or defendant.

"The only correct answers during the jury selection process are truthful ones," he said. "You come here with your life experiences and through that life experience you function in your daily living. You will bring that life experience with you to jury deliberation."

During Iten's questioning of the pool, potential jurors discussed expectations set by "CSI" and other crime television shows in connection with various pieces of evidence that can be found at a planned or spontaneous crime scene.

When asked if anyone had additional concerns about participating on the jury, several people said they have had increased anxiety since Monday.

Iten recognized "there is no greater burden" laid upon a jury than the potential decision to recommend a death sentence.

Hernandez followed Iten, emphasizing again that jurors would need to presume Smith innocent going into the trial.

"To some extent we're going against a human tendency to think, 'He's here. He must have done something,'" Hernandez said.

Dubensky repeated that the state has the burden of proving guilt in the case. For Smith to be convicted of first-degree murder, all elements of the charges would have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, he said.

Hernandez asked several follow-up questions to answers given throughout the week, including during Iten's final inquiries.

The defense's final question asked potential jurors if they could ask anyone in history a question, what it would be and why.

Answers included religious and philosophical figures, musicians, former world leaders and technological pioneers and inventors.

Some answers garnered a few laughs, even from the defendant.

"We're not doing this to waste your time or satisfy a curiosity," Hernandez said. "It's an effort on our part to get to know you and discuss some of the things you've experienced that could keep you from being fair or impartial in a particular case."

The day ended with Dubensky granting the state's motion to incarcerate a material witness who has been difficult to reach.

The defense indicated it would file at least one additional motion Friday.

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