As reported in the Bradenton Herald, criminal defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand of this office is in Manatee County this week, engaged in jury selection in the trial of Delmer Smith III. Mr. Smith has been charged with the first-degree murder of Kathleen Briles and potentially faces the death penalty if convicted.
As of early Wednesday afternoon, fewer than half of the initial 150 potential jurors had yet passed through preliminary screening and “death penalty qualification”. The parties, attorneys and judge continued with the jury selection process all afternoon.
In some ways, the jury for a death penalty case is no different than any other criminal jury. The job is the same – listen impartially to the evidence and determine guilt after deliberation – and yet it is entirely different at the same time. A “death-qualified” jury, if they decide that a defendant is guilty, must then listen to a hearing on the penalty and decide whether or not to recommend that the defendant be executed.
In order to choose 12 qualified jurors (plus some alternates), attorneys must question all potential jurors regarding their thoughts and opinions about capital punishment. As one might imagine, jurors often have very strong opinions about the death penalty – one way or the other. People who do not believe that the death penalty is ever warranted, in any case, cannot sit on a death penalty jury. Conversely, people who believe that every homicide warrants execution of the perpetrator are also barred from these juries. Qualified jurors must be able to follow the law as it pertains to punishment.
As Florida state law allows for imposition of the death penalty under certain conditions – the jury must weigh specific aggravating factors against specific mitigating factors, keeping their minds open while listening to the evidence. Anyone who couldn’t keep an open mind either way will not be seated on the jury.
Smith’s defense attorneys, including Bjorn Brunvard, said the defense may request more than 10 preemptory strikes due to several potential jurors having some previous knowledge of the case.
Smith is accused of bludgeoning Briles to death with an antique sewing machine in her Terra Ceia home three years ago. If he is found guilty of first-degree murder in a unanimous vote, he will be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
For the death penalty to be the jury’s recommended sentence, at least seven of the 12 panelists would have to vote to recommend execution. If six or fewer jurors vote for the death penalty, an imposition of life in prison without parole would be considered the jury’s recommendation. (Florida is the only state that does not require a unanimous jury recommendation in death penalty cases.)
The trial judge would ultimately make the final sentencing decision, giving great weight to the jury’s recommendation.