SARASOTA, FL — On February 6, 2004, Sarasota Police announced that the hunt for the man who abducted 11-year-old Carlie Brucia five days earlier had led to Joseph P. Smith, a 37-year-old auto mechanic and father of three.
The search for Carlie and her kidnapper had riveted the public, after surveillance video depicted the very moments when Smith confronted and carried off Carlie, who had been walking home on a Sunday afternoon following a sleepover at a friend’s house.
On the tape, Smith is seen approaching Carlie behind a car wash and, after a moment of conversation, dragging her by the wrist into his yellow Buick station wagon. News programs broadcast the video continuously.
A number of informants identified Smith as the man on the tape, including his live-in girlfriend. Authorities were already all too familiar Smith. He was a long-time nuisance who boasted an extensive rap sheet for drug-related offenses — including kidnapping and false imprisonment.
In fact, cops had popped Smith for a parole violation on February 3. As a result, he was already locked up when NASA imaging technology positively revealed him to be the creep who grabbed Carlie.
Two days later, Smith confirmed everyone’s worst fears. After seeing the abduction video on TV, John Smith, the suspect’s brother, called police to say he recognized Joseph and that he’d work with them to get his sibling to talk. On February 5, John visited his brother in custody, and Joseph admitted that he raped Carlie, strangled her, and hid her body in a church parking lot. John then led police to the spot Joseph told him about. Carlie was there.
Authorities charged Joseph P. Smith with first-degree murder, kidnapping, and capital sexual battery.
Even with the death penalty on the table, Smith refused to cut a plea deal. His trial commenced on February 7, 2005. Ten days later, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts and voted 10-to-2, for Smith to be executed.
That December, Circuit Judge Andrew Owens ruled in favor of the jury’s recommendation, stating:
“The scales of life and death tip unquestionably toward death … Carlie endured unspeakable trauma, which began at the time of her kidnapping … Her death was pitiless, calculated. and premeditated … The image of the defendant taking her arm and leading her away no doubt will forever be etched in our minds.”
Steven Kansler, Carlie’s stepfather, wept in the courtroom and told the press:
“It still hurts. It doesn’t change anything. I just feel that Carlie has been heard. Her soul is gone now. Now it’s just a matter of time to wait to watch Joe Smith die.”
Susan Schorpen, Carlie’s mother, could not attend the sentencing. She was behind bars at the time for drugs and prostitution.
Schorpen’s family said that Carlie’s murder so unhinged Schorpen that she sank into addiction to numb the pain and had committed herself to psychiatric facilities three times since the abduction. In 2017, Susan Schorpen, who struggled for years with narcotics, succumbed to a fatal overdose.
Just three months after Schorpen died, a judge vacated Joseph P. Smith’s death sentence and awarded him the right to a new sentencing trial due to the original jury’s split decision regarding capital punishment.
No new trial has yet been scheduled, but Smith has been removed from the list of Florida’s Death Row inmates.
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Main photos: Carlie Brucia; Joseph P. Smith [Sarasota Sheriff’s Department]