The Murder of Carlie Brucia

A child is abducted on videotape; her killer is convicted

Outside the trial for the accused killer of Carlie Brucia

Tim Boyles / Getty Images

On Sunday, February 1, 2004, in Sarasota, Florida, 11-year-old Carlie Jane Brucia was on her way home from a sleepover at her friend's house. Her stepfather Steve Kansler left to pick her up en route but never found her. Carlie had decided to cut through a carwash not far from her home. She was approached by a man and led away, never to be seen alive again.

The surveillance camera at the carwash showed a man in a uniform-type shirt approaching Carlie, saying something to her, and then leading her away.

NASA, using technology employed in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, assisted the investigation by working with the video to enhance the image. The FBI also worked to help find Carlie and the man who abducted her.

Responding to tips, Sarasota police questioned Joseph P. Smith, who had been in their custody on an unrelated parole violation since the day after Carlie was abducted. A woman who said she lived with Smith was one of the tipsters. Smith refused to admit to any involvement with Carlie's disappearance.

On February 6, it was announced that Carlie's body had been found. She had been murdered and left in a church parking lot just miles from her home.

History of Kidnapping

Smith, a 37-year-old car mechanic and father of three who had been arrested in Florida at least 13 times since 1993 and previously had been charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment, was taken into custody as the main suspect in Carlie's murder.

On February 20, Smith was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder; separate charges of kidnapping and capital sexual battery were filed by the state attorney's office.

Trial

During the trial, the jury saw the carwash videotape and heard testimony from witnesses who said they recognized Smith when they saw the video on television. The video also revealed tattoos on Smith's arm, which were identified during the trial. Evidence was presented that identified semen found on the girl's clothes as matching Smith's DNA.

The jury also heard testimony from Smith's brother John Smith, who led police to Carlie's body after his brother confessed the crime to him during a jail visit. He told jurors that his brother said he had rough sex with the 11-year-old girl before he strangled her to death. He also testified that he had recognized his brother in the videotape that pictured Carlie being lead away by a man behind a car wash.

Closing Arguments

In his closing statement, prosecutor Craig Schaeffer reminded jurors of the videotape showing Smith leading Carlie away, of Smith's DNA being found on her shirt, and of taped admissions that he killed her. "How do we know this man killed Carlie?" Schaeffer asked the jurors. "He told us."

Smith's defense attorney shocked the courtroom when he declined to give a closing statement. "Your honor, opposing counsel, members of the jury, we waive closing argument," Adam Tebrugge said.

Found Guilty

On October 24, 2005, the jury took less than six hours to find Smith guilty of the first-degree murder, sexual battery, and kidnapping of Carlie Brucia.

In December, the jury voted 10 to 2 for the death sentence in Carlie's murder.

During a sentencing hearing in February 2006, Smith cried while apologizing to the court for murdering Carlie and said that he had tried to kill himself by taking overdoses of heroin and cocaine on the day of the murder. He asked the judge to spare his life for the sake of his family.

But on March 15, 2006, Circuit Court Judge Andrew Owens sentenced Smith to death by lethal injection for Carlie's murder and to life in prison without the possibility of parole for assault and kidnapping. Owen said before sentencing:

"Carlie endured unspeakable trauma, which began at the time of her kidnapping...The image of the defendant taking her arm and leading her away will no doubt forever be etched in our minds...During the sexual and physical abuse Carlie was subjected to, at 11 years of age, there is no doubt she was aware of her dire predicament and that she had little or no hope of survival...Her death was consciousless and pitiless...calculated and premeditated."

Death Sentence Vacated

On July 18, 2017, County Court Judge Charles Roberts vacated Smith's death sentence based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a unanimous jury verdict is required to impose the death penalty. A new sentencing hearing was scheduled for October 2019, but months before the hearing a delay was requested by the prosecution and defense.

As of September 2019, Smith was in the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida.

Sources