The mother of slain 11-year-old Carlie Brucia died on Monday, just as it becomes possible Joseph Smith, her daughter’s killer, might receive a hearing that could lead to him moving off Florida’s death row.
Susan Schorpen, who struggled with drug addiction and had many run-ins with the law, died in a Polk County hospital, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. She was 47.
No foul play is suspected. A cause of death is under investigation by 10th District of Florida Medical Examiner’s Office, pending an autopsy report and toxicology results.
On Feb. 1, 2004, 11-year-old Carlie was walking home from a friend’s house when Joseph Smith abducted her as she passed the back of Evie’s Car Wash, 4715 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota. The abduction was captured by the car wash’s video surveillance system.
Law enforcement frantically searched for Carlie for five days, but her body wasn’t found until five days later at Central Church of Christ, 6221 Proctor Road, after Smith was arrested and he confessed to the crime.
On Nov. 17, 2005, a jury found Smith guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping. On Dec. 1 of that year, the jury voted 10-2 to recommend Smith be sentenced to death.
Smith’s fate was sealed March 15, 2006, when Circuit Judge Andrew D. Owens sentenced him to die, as well as an additional two life sentences for kidnapping and sexual battery.
Schorpen had described Smith using words like “animal” when she expressed being pleased with his sentence, according to Bradenton Herald archives.
“He’s still breathing, and my daughter isn’t. … He couldn’t be dead fast enough for me,” she said at the time. “I’ve got to wait for appeals?”
In the wake of controversies and changes to Florida’s death penalty law, Smith may be granted a new sentencing hearing.
Last month, Owens heard arguments from both sides in a Sarasota courtroom and said he would issue written ruling. Since his retirement March 21, however, the case has been reassigned to Circuit Judge Charles E. Roberts.
Florida’s death penalty scheme has been in limbo since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January 2016 in Hurst vs. Florida that it was unconstitutional that Florida judges, not juries, have the ultimate say in the death penalty.
The state Legislature worked quickly to address the issues raised by Hurst, and Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law thought to have addressed the problem by requiring that a jury make the determination when imposing the death penalty. But in October, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Hurst ruling also required a unanimous vote by a jury to sentence someone to death, and not just a super-majority vote.
The question also arose which, if any, death row inmates would have the right to a re-sentencing hearing because of Hurst.
In December, in the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in Mark James Asay vs. Florida said that only death row inmates whose cases were finalized after the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring vs. Arizona qualify for a re-sentencing hearing. Ring vs. Arizona required a jury to find aggravating factors in order for the death penalty to be imposed.
Scott last month signed a new bill requiring a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty.
In the wake of the Hurst decision, Smith’s defense is now arguing that he is entitled to have his death sentence thrown out.
But the state has responded by saying that Smith is only entitled to relief if the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The state further argues that a rational jury would have unanimously sentenced Smith to die, since they unanimously found him guilty of the murder as well as found there were sufficient aggravating factors because they also found him guilty of the kidnapping and rape.