Joel Wright Florida Death Row
Joel Wright was sentenced to death by the State of Florida for the sexual assault and murder of Lima Smith. According to court documents Joel Wright broke into seventy five year old Lima Smith home and would sexually assault and murder the woman before robbing the home. Joel Wright would be arrested, convicted and sentenced to death
Joel Wright 2021 Information
|Name:||WRIGHT, JOEL D|
|Initial Receipt Date:||09/23/1983|
|Current Facility:||UNION C.I.|
|Current Release Date:||DEATH SENTENCE|
Joel Wright More News
In 1983, petitioner Wright lived with his parents in Palatka, Florida, next door to Lima Paige Smith, a 75–year–old school teacher. Sometime during the night of Saturday, February 5, Wright entered Ms. Smith’s home, stole her money, beat her about the head and face, obtained a knife, raped her brutally and savagely, and then stabbed her face and neck twelve times, resulting ultimately in Ms. Smith drowning in her own blood.
Around noon on Sunday, February 6, Earl Smith, Ms. Smith’s brother and neighbor, went to her door and knocked, and no one answered. He tried again over the course of several hours. Eventually, Earl Smith entered through an open window in the rear of Ms. Smith’s house. He found his sister’s body lying on the floor of her bedroom in a six-inch gap between the bed and a wall. Ms. Smith’s “dress was pulled up above her waist, and she had no clothing on under that, and she was bloody.” Earl immediately called the Sheriff’s Office. The call came in at 4:15 PM. Deputy Joe Cobb was dispatched at 4:17 and arrived at 4:24 PM.
During the trial, the State called 34 witnesses. We recount the testimony of seven of the State’s key witnesses most relevant to this appeal.2
A. Medical Examiner William Latimer
Dr. William Latimer, the medical examiner, testified about the brutal killing of Ms. Smith. At around 9:00 PM on Sunday, February 6, Dr. Latimer received Ms. Smith’s body and conducted an autopsy.
Dr. Latimer observed: (1) bruises on her face, particularly the right side; (2) 12 stab wounds on the left side of her neck and face, the largest wound being two inches long; and (3) a laceration in her vagina with blood trickling down the inner part of her right leg and extensive hemorrhaging. Dr. Latimer described the wound to her vaginal area as “[v]ery serious” and determined that it occurred before Ms. Smith died. As for the stab wounds, Dr. Latimer speculated that they were inflicted by a pocketknife. Ms. Smith died as a result of “multiple stab wounds which produced a state of shock and caused bleeding into the lungs and resulted in death.”
As to the time of Ms. Smith’s death, Dr. Latimer stated that, assuming that Ms. Smith maintained normal eating and sleeping habits, her death likely occurred between 5:00 and 9:00 PM on Saturday, February 5. He thought so because: (1) when Ms. Smith’s body arrived at the morgue, around 9:00 PM on Sunday, rigor mortis had already set in, indicating she was dead between 12 and 24 hours; (2) she was last seen alive around 5:00 PM on Saturday, February 5; (3) her stomach was empty, indicating she had not yet had her evening meal when she died; and (4) her body was not dressed in bed clothing, indicating she had not yet gotten ready for bed at the time of her murder. Dr. Latimer acknowledged he did not know anything about Ms. Smith’s eating and sleeping habits and could only speculate as to the precise time of death.
Thus, under Dr. Latimer’s testimony, Ms. Smith died between 5:00 and 9:00 PM on Saturday if she maintained normal eating and sleeping habits. If she did not have normal habits, then, under his rigor mortis timeframe, she died between an expanded time frame from Saturday night until 9:00 AM on Sunday (12 hours before the autopsy at 9:00 PM).3
B. Fingerprint Expert David Latent
David Latent of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement testified as an expert regarding latent fingerprints. Officer Latent found a latent fingerprint on a “portable stove” in Ms. Smith’s bedroom.4 Officer Latent identified that fingerprint as being left by defendant Wright.
C. Serologist James Pollock
James Pollock, a forensic serologist, examined blood samples taken from Ms. Smith’s home after the murder. Pollock “was not able to find any blood that was not consistent with that of the victim, Lima Paige [Smith].”
D. Charles Westberry
Another key witness was Charles Westberry, a friend of Wright’s for “[s]even or eight years.” Wright confessed to Westberry about killing Ms. Smith.
Specifically, on the evening of Saturday, February 5, Westberry went to a bar with his girlfriend, and the couple returned to a trailer owned by his brother. Westberry lived in the trailer with his brother and his brother’s wife and son.
Westberry remained in the trailer until Sunday morning when, just after dawn, Wright came “and knocked on the front door.” Westberry did not answer. Wright went “to the bedroom window and knocked on the side of the trailer.” Westberry answered and ushered Wright in through the front door and into the living room. According to Westberry, Wright told him “he’d killed Miss Smith.”
To prevent others from hearing their conversation, Westberry invited Wright out of the trailer and into Westberry’s truck, which was parked outside. There, Wright told Westberry “what had happened.” Wright told Westberry that: (1) he went to Terry Geck’s to a party and Geck brought him home and dropped him in front of his mother’s house; (2) Wright walked in front of Ms. Smith’s house and thought he saw her asleep in her car; and (3) thinking Ms. Smith’s home was unoccupied, Wright went around to the back, entered by climbing through a window, and found Ms. Smith’s pocketbook.
Wright also told Westberry that he stole all of the money from Ms. Smith’s pocketbook and started to wipe his fingerprints off of it. While doing so, “[h]e looked up and saw Miss Smith standing there.” According to Westberry, after Ms. Smith’s unexpected entrance, Wright “found a knife and cut her throat.” Wright explained that he killed Ms. Smith because “she recognized him, and ․ he didn’t want to go back to prison.”
Westberry testified that Wright then: (1) “found a rag and wiped off everything he thought he may have touched”; (2) “went outside and wiped down the window that he went through”; (3) “raked around the window with his hand where he might have left a footprint”; and (4) “went out behind the house, somewhere[ ] in the woods, and hid a jar of money he got.”
The prosecutor asked Westberry if Wright described the “jar of money to [him] in any way.” Westberry answered, “No, sir.” The prosecutor asked if Wright told him “what the jar contained, what type of money?” Westberry answered, “Change.”5
Wright did not mention to Westberry anything about raping Ms. Smith. Westberry added: “He swore-after it [came] out in the papers he swore to me he didn’t” rape her.
According to Westberry, during his conversation with Wright in the truck, Wright “pulled out the money that he got out of Miss Smith’s pocketbook” and counted it. The money totaled more than $290.
Later that morning, Westberry drove Wright to a 7–Eleven store for coffee. There, Westberry noticed blood stains below Wright’s ear and told Wright about it. Afterwards, Westberry drove Wright by Ms. Smith’s house on their way to get cigarettes. At that point, Wright commented that it did not “look like they found her yet.” After buying cigarettes, Wright and Westberry drove back to Westberry’s brother’s trailer and rested. Later that morning, Wright and Westberry went to a store to buy “some beer and some more cigarettes and some bait” and then went fishing. Wright used money stolen from Ms. Smith to pay for the beer, cigarettes, and bait. Wright also used Ms. Smith’s money to buy gas.
After their fishing trip, Westberry drove Wright back to Wright’s parents’ house. Wright and Westberry noticed law enforcement officers at Ms. Smith’s home. Before Wright left Westberry’s truck, Wright asked Westberry “to tell [law enforcement officers] that he had spent the night with [Westberry] Saturday night.”
On Tuesday, February 8, Sheriff’s Detective Taylor Douglas interviewed Westberry. Per Wright’s instructions, Westberry told Detective Douglas that Wright arrived at his trailer at about 1:30 or 2:00 AM on February 6 and stayed there for the remainder of the evening.
Around April 15, 1983, Westberry told his estranged wife, Paige, what Wright had told him. Westberry told Paige that he was having nightmares during which he saw Ms. Smith lying in a pool of blood. Paige Westberry testified at trial that she relayed what Westberry told her to Deputy Sheriff John Blahak.6
On April 18, 1983, Westberry was arrested and charged with a third-degree felony offense, being an accessory after the fact to the first-degree murder of Ms. Smith, see Fla. Stat. § 770.03. On August 3, Westberry pled guilty to the reduced misdemeanor offense of compounding a felony, see Fla. Stat. § 843.14. As part of his written plea agreement, Westberry promised “to testify truthfully in the case of State v. Joel Dale Wright.”
During cross-examination, Wright’s defense counsel had Westberry admit that he was initially charged with a third-degree felony in connection with Ms. Smith’s murder punishable by five years in prison and that his plea agreement allowed him to plead to a first-degree misdemeanor carrying a maximum one-year penalty in the county jail.
Defense counsel showed Westberry his separate Contract of Immunity, which Westberry admitted signing. Westberry acknowledged this document gave him immunity from prosecution for having entered the residence of Lima Paige Smith.
E. Paul House
Another acquaintance of Wright’s, Paul House, testified that he accompanied Wright into Ms. Smith’s home. This occurred approximately one month before Ms. Smith’s murder. The pair entered without permission through a rear window. House testified that they did so to look around and “[t]o get change out of the garbage and stuff.”
F. Detective Walter Perkins
On April 18, 1983, Sheriff’s Detective Walter Perkins interviewed Wright at the Putnam County Jail. At the onset of the interview, Detective Perkins advised Wright of his constitutional rights, which Wright confirmed he understood. Afterwards, according to Detective Perkins, Wright said: “ ‘If I confess to this, I will die in the electric chair. If I don’t talk I stand a chance of living.’ “
G. Testimony of William Bartley
William Bartley, a Palatka resident, did yard work for Ms. Smith. Bartley testified that, on January 28, 1983, he was working in Ms. Smith’s yard when Wright walked by.7 Bartley testified that Wright said “that it was about time for the old lady to die and stuff.” Wright also said “there probably be [sic] some money in the house somewhere between all those papers and stuff in the house.”
II. WRIGHT’S GUILT PHASE EVIDENCE, 1983
Wright’s defense counsel at trial was Assistant Public Defender Howard Pearl, who specialized in capital litigation. The trial court told Wright that “there is no better capital crimes lawyer available than Mr. Pearl.” Pearl obtained considerable pre-trial discovery, including depositions from several of the State’s witnesses and documents and other evidence from the State.
The state trial court permitted Pearl to give his opening statement after the prosecution finished its presentation of evidence. Pearl called nine witnesses, including Wright and Charlotte Martinez, who gave testimony relevant to the issues before us.8
A. Defendant Wright
In his testimony, Wright admitted being with Charles Westberry during the night of the murder. Although Westberry said Wright came to his trailer around dawn on Sunday, February 6, Wright testified he got to Westberry’s much earlier—around 1:00 AM that day.
Wright testified that, on the afternoon of Saturday, February 5, he was first with Kenny Westberry (Charles Westberry’s brother) and Doc Ryster “picking up scaffold and loading it on Kenny’s truck.” Around 5:00 or 6:00 PM, Wright went to his house. Around 8:00 PM, he went to Geck’s home to play poker.
According to Wright, he stayed at his friend Geck’s house “playing poker and drinking” until “after midnight.” He won $28 in the game. Around 12:30 AM, Geck drove Wright home.
When Wright got out of Geck’s truck, he approached the door of his house and discovered that he was locked out. Wright then “walked to Charles Westberry’s house.” Contrary to Westberry’s testimony that Wright arrived around dawn, Wright estimated that he arrived at Westberry’s trailer, “somewhere between quarter to one and one o’clock.”
When Wright arrived at Westberry’s trailer, he “knocked on the door, but nobody answered.” Then he “walked around to [Westberry’s] window” and “knocked on the side of the trailer, and Charles told [him] to meet him at the door.” Wright told Westberry he was locked out of his house and asked him if he could stay the night in the Westberrys’ trailer. Westberry “said sure.” Wright testified: “He gave me a blanket and I slept on the couch.”
Wright denied breaking into Ms. Smith’s home, taking money from her, or killing her. He said that Westberry had lied during his testimony. Wright denied making the statement to Detective Perkins regarding a fear of dying “in the electric chair.”
B. Charlotte Martinez
Charlotte Martinez, another Palatka resident, testified about an interaction with Wright shortly after Ms. Smith’s murder, when Wright had only $7 in “mostly pennies.”
In his opening statement, Pearl explained he would call Martinez “to demonstrate ․ that the [$290.00] kitty that Charles Westberry testified to could not have been in existence, or if it was that ․ Wright didn’t know about it or otherwise he wouldn’t have used that money to buy beer.”
Martinez testified that, in mid-February of 1983, she and her friends drove to Wright’s home and picked Wright up. She intended to take Wright back to her house, where the group would “drink some beer.” However, no one in the car had any money to purchase beer.
The group agreed that Wright would pay for the beer. Martinez testified that Wright “was waiting for his check, and he said he had to break into his [piggy] bank to get the money because his check didn’t come that day.” Wright went into his house and retrieved a “glass vase” filled with “[m]ostly pennies.” The group counted the money in the container and found that it contained “about seven dollars.” With this money, the group purchased two six-packs of beer and returned to Martinez’s house and drank the beer.9
III. VERDICT, 1983
After nine days of trial, on September 1, 1983, the jury found Wright guilty of: (1) one count of first-degree murder, see Fla. Stat. § 782.04; (2) one count of sexual battery with force likely to cause serious personal injury, see id. § 794.011(3); (3) one count of burglary of a dwelling, see id. § 810.02(3); and (4) one count of grand theft of the second degree, see id. § 812.014.
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