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Killer blames lawyer for life sentence

He says he was pressured into a plea deal in the 1996 shooting deaths of two teachers.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000


Jimmy Dale Smith is asking a judge to throw out his life sentence, saying he had an incompetent lawyer who pressured him into pleading guilty in the 1996 shooting deaths of two Hernando High School teachers.

Smith, now 24, says his lawyer did not do enough to prove that he was insane when he committed the murders. He says the lawyer pressured him into taking the plea agreement that gave him life in prison, telling him he would die in the electric chair if he did not. Smith also claims he misunderstood what he was doing when he pleaded guilty to the two murder charges because he was on medication.

"Trial counsel never investigated or had psychological evaluations of the defendant's mental state at the time of the offense," the motion filed Sept. 21 states. "Every generation of the defendant's family has had mental illness ... (but) the trial attorney never inquired into any of these facts."

Prosecutors say the allegations in Smith's appeal are untrue.

"These are just naked, unsubstantiated allegations that always come up," Assistant State Attorney Don Scaglione said. "They (convicts) all file them. It's a standard process."

Records show that former Circuit Judge William Law asked Smith if he was being pressured into making his plea in 1998; the judge also asked him if any of the medications he was on kept him from understanding what was occurring. Smith answered no in each case.

Smith's lawyer, Alan Fanter, did pursue an insanity defense and had experts examine him. One evaluation, made by psychiatrist Michael Mahr, said that Smith did not know right from wrong on the day of the killings and that he suffered from a mental illness. However, it did not specify which illness and added that Smith was aware of the consequences of his actions at the time of the crime.

Experts for the state argued that Smith, although mentally ill, knew what he was doing when he shot the teachers and knew it was wrong.

"All that was investigated, all that was brought forward. But it did not rebut the fact that (Smith) was not insane at the time of the offense," Scaglione said. "(Smith) was going to be found guilty, and there was a good chance he would have gotten the electric chair. He had one of the best defense attorneys in the area, who was able to negotiate a life-saving non-death penalty agreement."

Fanter declined to comment Wednesday.

Smith pleaded guilty in 1998 to killing teachers Michael Imhoff, 40, and Mike Bristol, 41. His rampage began early on Jan. 11, 1996, when Smith ransacked his mother and stepfather's mobile home. A few hours later, he totaled his Ford Escort in a collision with an camper on U.S. 98. After a brief conversation with the camper's driver, Smith grabbed a 30-30 rifle and his own green hard hat from the back seat and ran into the woods.

About 15 minutes passed before he emerged from the woods on Lake Lindsey Road, about 5 miles north of Brooksville. Moments later, Imhoff and Bristol, who knew Smith as a student at Hernando High School, drove up and stopped. Smith demanded their truck.

Smith would say later in a jail interview that he shot Imhoff in the head because he had laughed at him. Smith gunned down Bristol as he tried to run up a nearby driveway.

He then drove away in the truck.

Smith reappeared an hour later in a convenience store parking lot, where he got in a gun battle with a sheriff's deputy and stole the deputy's patrol car. The deputy shot Smith in the arm, leg and abdomen. Two off-duty deputies captured him near the store.

After his arrest, Smith was found incompetent to stand trial, but that finding was later reversed. While awaiting trial, he ate foam trays, banged his head on cell walls and attacked several corrections officers. Guards overheard him telling a friend he was trying to act crazy, according to detectives' reports.

When Smith pleaded guilty to the killings, he gave up his right to an appeal. He is now asking for his sentence to be thrown out as part of a civil motion for post conviction relief. Such a motion requires a much higher standard of proof than an appeal, Scaglione said. Not only does Smith have to prove that his lawyer was ineffective, but also that he was so ineffective that Smith would not have been convicted and given life in prison.

A status hearing on the motion is set for Nov. 14. Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink denied on Oct. 10 Smith's request for a court-appointed lawyer. Smith filed his latest appeal himself.

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