BARTOW – Polk jurors unanimously recommended the death sentence Friday in what’s believed to be the first death verdict under the new death penalty law signed by the governor last month.
After deliberating about four hours, 12 jurors unanimously found that convicted murderer Benjamin Smiley should be sentenced to death for the 2013 fatal shooting of 58-year-old Clifford Drake. Smiley will be sentenced by Judge Harb on May 11.
Prior to the new law, jurors needed a majority vote to recommend death.
In order for Assistant State Attorneys Kristie Ducharme and Hope Pattey to secure the death recommendation under this new law, the jurors need a unanimous vote in 4 of the 5 sections on the verdict form. The aggravating factors, their sufficiency, the defendant’s eligibility, and the death penalty itself must be established beyond a reasonable doubt.
The jury found that they were, and they recommended Smiley be sentenced to death.
During the course of the two-week sentencing hearing, Ducharme and Pattey laid out the facts of the Drake case, of which 24-year-old Smiley was convicted in November 2016.
Smiley and an accomplice planned to rob Drake’s safe because they believed he had a substantial amount of money in it. When they arrived at Drake’s house, his stepson intervened before being held at gunpoint and forced to escort Smiley to Drake’s room.
Drake was woken up with a tap to the head from Smiley’s gun and was fatally shot – once in the hip and once in the chest – when he told Smiley there was no money in his safe.
Evidence and DNA recovered from the scene linked Smiley to it, and Drake’s stepson identified him as the suspect from a photo lineup.
As a part of the aggravating factors, jurors were also told of Smiley’s prior murder conviction for the 2013 death of 49-year-old Carmen Riley, of which he was found guilty in November 2015.
Similar to the facts of the Drake case, Smiley robbed Riley and fatally shot her during a home invasion. Unlike the Drake case, there were no witnesses and no evidence found at the scene, with the exception of projectiles from a gun.
The case went cold until February 2015 when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that the projectiles from the Carmen case were a match for the ones in the Drake case. Law enforcement also spoke to Smiley’s accomplices, who admitted their involvement in planning both robberies and their knowledge of Smiley shooting both victims.
Following the jury’s unanimous verdict, State Attorney Brian Haas said he was pleased with the outcome.
“While the new law makes it more difficult to obtain a death sentence, my office will continue to follow the law and seek the death penalty in cases where it is appropriate,” Haas said Friday.
“I’m very thankful for the hard work and dedication of Assistant State Attorneys Ducharme and Pattey. I’m also grateful for our partnership with the Lakeland Police Department (LakelandPD),” Haas said. “LPD officers worked very hard on this case and were instrumental in obtaining this verdict.”