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Man found guilty of murder

Lawrence Joey Smith, 23, faces life in prison or the death penalty in the death of a teen.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


DADE CITY -- With a storm of emotion swirling behind him, Lawrence Joey Smith kept his eyes straight ahead Thursday as a jury found him guilty of murder.

Sitting in a blue suit, the 23-year-old Smith -- animated and smiling earlier in his trial -- greeted the verdict with silence.

Behind him, 17-year-old victim Robert Crawford's family and friends packed the courtroom benches. Some smiled for an instant with the announcement, then hugged each other as they struggled to hold back a wave of emotion.

On the other side of the aisle, Smith's family dissolved into tears.

One of Smith's relatives, Deborah Crane, looked at Crawford's family and hissed, "I'm glad your son died."

Her family immediately hustled her out of the courtroom and out of the courthouse.

Before the verdict, a close friend and supporter of Smith's -- Deborah Smith, no relation -- expressed grief for the Crawford family and said Steven Tuttle's survival that night in September 1999 was a gift from God.

Lawrence Joey Smith was found guilty of first-degree murder and attempted murder in the shootings of Crawford and Tuttle, now 17. According to authorities, the Land O'Lakes High School friends were middlemen in a $1,200 LSD purchase for Faunce Levon Pearce when other friends betrayed them and stole Pearce's cash.

Investigators testified Pearce was enraged at the loss and summoned three men, including Smith, to help retrieve the money. As Pearce and his armed friends drove along State Road 54 with Crawford and Tuttle on the night of Sept. 13, the teens were ordered one by one out of the car, and Smith shot each of them in the head with a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Crawford died on the spot. Tuttle survived a bullet to the brain. Pearce's murder trial is set for July.

Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson sent jurors out a back door after the verdict to avoid courthouse hallways that have been clogged with friends and family from both sides. Jurors must return this morning to hear from both sides and make a recommendation of life in prison or the death penalty for Smith.

As the courtroom cleared, Crawford's father, Robert Sr., hugged prosecutors Phil Van Allen and Manny Garcia.

The Crawford family -- many wearing a small green "R" ribbon to honor the dead teen -- declined to comment as they left.

Thursday's verdict followed a morning of closing arguments and four hours of deliberation.

In his closing, appointed defense attorney Daniel Hernandez agreed his client was present when Crawford and Tuttle were gunned down but said there was no physical evidence and only suspect testimony from two men who were protecting Pearce to pin the shootings on Smith.

He argued Pearce shot the boys and said two witnesses were covering for him. He said Pearce saw Smith as "the perfect fall guy."

Van Allen was adamant in his closing that Smith was the triggerman.

He stalked the courtroom floor for nearly an hour as he clutched the murder weapon in his right hand, waved it in the air, tapped the lectern with it and acting out the shootings.

As his argument climaxed, he walked the jury through a series of rhetorical questions and finally asked: "Where did the gun go, folks? Right there."

And he slammed the heavy pistol onto the table in front of Smith.

Spectators and jurors jumped in their seats with the loud report.

Hernandez leapt to his feet and asked for a conference with Swanson out of the jury's earshot. He asked for a mistrial but was denied.

When it was his turn to speak, Hernandez denounced Van Allen's tactics.

"It's nice theatrics, but it doesn't make a weak case stronger," he told jurors.

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