Florida justice system under scrutiny in wake of girl's death

Monday, February 9, 2004

SARASOTA, Fla. -- For the better part of a decade, the man suspected of killing an 11-year-old girl whose abduction was caught on videotape had been under the supervision of Florida's criminal justice system. But despite his many brushes with the law, Joseph P. Smith never spent long behind bars.

Now, Carlie Brucia's grieving family is demanding to know why Smith -- a drug addict who admitted attacking one woman and was accused of trying to kidnap another -- was a free man.

The longest Smith has ever spent in prison is less than 14 months. He was acquitted of the most serious crime on his rap sheet, an attempted kidnapping, after telling jurors he meant the woman no harm.

Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist said Saturday that his office already was reviewing whether the state's probation laws need to be toughened to deal with offenders like Smith.

"You can't help but think some of the statutes are too permissive," Crist told The Associated Press. "I think it's important we review putting more teeth into our statutes."

Crist said the laws being reviewed deal with probation violators and the options judges are given to punish them.

That review took on new intensity Friday when Joe Brucia, Carlie's father, called on Gov. Jeb Bush for an investigation of why Smith had served relatively little time in prison despite more than a dozen arrests.

"The system failed Joe, and it failed that little girl," Smith's former business partner, Ed Dinyes, told the St. Petersburg Times.

Dinyes said Smith should have been locked up because of his repeated crimes. "May-be he deserves to die for what he's done, but the state should have to pay a price, too," he said.

Carlie was abducted Feb. 1 while walking home from a friend's house, and videotape from a security camera at a car wash showed her being led away by a man police say was Smith. The girl's body was found Friday in a church parking lot.

Sarasota Circuit Judge Harry Rapkin, the latest judge to have handled Smith's case, said Friday he was not at fault for not putting Smith in jail when the unemployed mechanic failed to pay court costs and fines in December.

There's no "debtor's prison" in Florida and Smith wouldn't have been held simply for not paying a bill, the judge said.

Rapkin has been receiving threatening telephone calls for his handling of the case, even though he never even saw Smith in his courtroom.

Smith's first brush with Florida's criminal justice system was a 1993 arrest for attacking a woman on a street in Sarasota, breaking her nose with a motorcycle helmet. He pleaded no contest to aggravated battery and served 60 days in jail followed by two years on probation.

Since then, Smith has been on probation almost continually.

In 1997, he was put on one year's probation on a concealed weapons charge for carrying a five-inch knife hidden in the waistband of his shorts.

In 1999, he was arrested for heroin possession and was put on probation for 18 months. A month later, he was arrested for prescription fraud, but the charge was dropped.

The next year, he was arrested again for prescription fraud and sentenced to six months of house arrest followed by a year on probation.

According to court records, his probation officer said it was impossible to tell if a positive drug test result was from an illegal drug or a legitimate prescription of Oxycontin for severe, chronic back pain.

"Needs long term residential treatment ... prison if necessary," the probation officer wrote in a report that's now a part of Smith's court file.

As the newest judge on Smith's case, Rapkin said he's never seen that report or others on Smith's crimes throughout the years.

In 2001, Smith was arrested for prescription fraud, and that time he did land in prison. He served about 13 months of a 16-month sentence and was released on New Year's Day 2003.

Eight days later, deputies found Smith passed out in his car with drugs on the seat beside him.

He could have gone to prison for five years, but a scoring system that judges use to determine sentencing didn't add up to enough to put Smith in prison, records showed. Instead, he was put on probation for three more years.

State Sen. Victor Crist, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and a leading legislator in anti-crime initiatives for the past decade, said it is ultimately the judge's decision when not to use the full measure of punishment allowed by the law.

"The laws are there," Crist said. "We can always tweak them, we can always make tougher penalties, but the bottom line is we have tough penalties, we just don't enforce them."

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