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True Believer

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  • | 6:00 p.m. October 1, 2004
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True Believer

By Janet Leiser and Scott Ferguson

Adam Tebrugge is on a first-name basis with one of America's most hated men, a jailed Sarasota mechanic accused of abducting and killing an 11-year-old girl. In fact, Tebrugge is most likely Joseph P. Smith's closest ally, at this point.

Whether Smith lives or dies - if convicted of Carlie Brucia's death - is largely dependent on Tebrugge, 42, a 12th Circuit assistant public defender who has won the acquittal of four other accused murderers.

People around the world watched in horror as a Sarasota car wash security video showed a man, now identified by prosecutors as Smith, 38, leading Brucia by her forearm to his car on Feb. 1. The tape replayed on television channels and the Internet for days while authorities searched for the girl and her abductor. Her body was found five days later in bushes near a church. She had been raped and strangled.

It seemed the entire country grieved for young Brucia and held contempt and hatred for the man accused of her murder.

"I want to put (Smith) on I-95 in Florida and let him be hit over and over by 18-wheelers - just for a while! Then we hose down the highway to get rid of the blood - problem solved (and our goods still get delivered on time)."

- Internet user

Tebrugge, who watched the news accounts with sadness, was given the task of representing Smith.

"I certainly understand the horror that the community feels when there is a terrible crime," Tebrugge says. "I feel that same emotion when I pick up the paper, and I read that a bad crime has been committed. But I try to be non-judgmental when I go to the jail, and I meet my client."

Tebrugge's mother, he says, often asks him why he seems to get the worst cases.

It's his job, he says. And, after all, it's America: You're innocent until proven guilty.

"That's what sets America apart from other countries," Tebrugge says. "We (public defenders) are the watchdogs over the rest of the criminal justice system. If a judge does something wrong, we're in there to call him on it. If law enforcement makes a mistake, we're in there to call them on it."

And good lawyering is the gangly Tebrugge's specialty, especially when the client's crime cuts to the quick of a soul.

Other more famous criminal defense attorneys, such as Gerry Spence or Johnnie Cochran Jr., might have a better record and are certainly more apt to be found on television. Tebrugge, on the other hand, is hardly a household name in Sarasota, but he is known in the county's legal system for his skills and eloquent courtroom manner. At an annual salary of about $80,000, he's no hired gun.

In 1984, after graduating from Florida State University's law school, Tebrugge joined the office of 12th Circuit Public Defender Elliott C. Metcalfe Jr. "I lived in my car my first couple nights I worked here," he says. "Until someone who worked here took mercy on me and offered a place to stay."

For 20 years, Tebrugge has defended those who cannot pay for their own defense. Most recently, in June, he helped fellow defense attorney John Scotese win an acquittal for Dwayne Simmons, 30, who faced life in prison for killing ex-girlfriend Latarsha Murray-Johnson with a golf club.

While prosecutor Steve Zimath told jurors Murray-Johnson's death was the result of "ill will, hatred or spite brought to its worst conclusion," Tebrugge argued the crime was committed in self-defense. And his gamble - placing Simmons on the witness stand to recount the night - paid off. The jury believed Tebrugge and Simmons.

Simmons walked out the front door of the Sarasota courthouse a free man, but only after breaking down into tears.

Florida cracker

Tebrugge, whose father was an architect and mother an educator, was born in 1961 at Tampa General Hospital. He grew up in the Tampa area and moved to Sarasota after high school to study religion at New College.

As a boy, he read The Hardy Boys' series.

By the time he was 10 or so, he decided he would become a lawyer. He attributes part of that decision to the influence of an uncle, an attorney in Thomasville, Ga. "I basically went to law school to become a public defender," he says. "I just always felt it was my turn to give back something."

'Man in Black'

Tebrugge has a modest office on the fifth floor of the downtown Sarasota criminal justice center. On his desk are photographs of three former clients - Emanuel Johnson, Daniel Burns and John Troy - all on Florida's Death Row.

"I keep those guys up there as a constant reminder of what it is that I do," he says. "I'm still in constant touch with all of them."

There are also photos of his heroes: Johnny Cash, Ernest Hemingway, Muddy Waters and civil rights activists' John Lewis and Edmund Pettis.

"Johnny Cash, he's one of my main men," Tebrugge says. "I really think he's the voice of America, the voice of the working person."

One of Tebrugge's favorites is "Man in Black," recorded by Cash in February 1971 when Tebrugge was 9. The song explains why the soulful musician wore black.

"Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,

Why you never see bright colors on my back,

And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone?

Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,

Or listened to the words that Jesus said,

About the road to happiness through love and charity,

Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,

In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,

But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,

Up front there ought 'a be a Man in Black."

Tebrugge's life as an attorney reflects a similar belief. He has spent his career helping those most others would rather lock up or kill.

Derek Byrd, another former 12th Circuit assistant public defender who is now the principal of his own law firm, calls Tebrugge "a true believer."

"He believes strongly in the rights of the accused," Byrd says. "While other attorneys might not fight as hard for clients they think are guilty, Adam believes that everyone's rights need to be defended vigorously - regardless of their guilt or innocence."

Tebrugge is used to standing by himself with that view. Often, his side of the courtroom, to the judge's left, remains sparse.

"Killing this man (Smith) is too easy on him. I am in favor of torture."

- Internet user

Tebrugge long ago lost count of how many trials he has completed. In his first couple of years as a defense attorney, he estimates he handled 60 trials.

"It's really trial by fire," he says.

In 1990, he began handling murders only.

In May, he defended Errol Watts, 34, a drug-addict who killed his parents, Mary and Earl Watts, in 2002 as they returned from a weekend golf trip. Watts was found guilty of the murders. Prosecutors said Watts had been selling his parents' possessions to buy crack cocaine.

Although Tebrugge declined comment on any specific case, citing ethical concerns, he says success isn't always based on an acquittal.

"If the case looks pretty bad, i.e., multiple victims and strong evidence, we are frequently trying to work out a disposition that does not involve the death penalty," he says.

Unseen victims

People don't realize the pain isn't just felt by the victim and their relatives and friends, he says. Smith has a former wife and three young daughters.

"In every court event, the pain of both the victim's family and the defendant's family are tangible," says Tebrugge, who weighs his words carefully. "As a lawyer, you're taught that you have to build up a hard shell, or this job would be almost impossible to do. But there are times when you have to get in touch with your feelings in order to better represent your client and to develop a better relationship with witnesses."

'The hell with the courts, give him to the dad and let him suffer the night of hell. Save the taxpayers money as well.'

- Internet user

As each new trial begins, Tebrugge says he feels as though he's reinventing the wheel.

"I have to go back in there and read the same old laws that I've read 100 times before," he says. "Write those jury instructions, word by word. ¦ The amount of work is so overwhelming when you're in trial. This has been one of my busiest years ever, not just because of the Joseph Smith case."

During a trial, Tebrugge is usually at the office by 5:45 a.m. and doesn't return home until midnight, he says, adding: "It's almost like getting ready to run a marathon one more time."

It's so strenuous, he says, he forgets to eat. During the three-week Watts' trial, he lost 18 pounds.

"I think about the trial 24 hours, even when I'm asleep," Tebrugge says. "That's probably the most difficult part; the intense amount of work."

Tebrugge's defense of Smith, Byrd says, will be particularly tough, because of the video clip of Smith and Brucia in the parking lot of a Bee Ridge Road car wash.

"That video is the reason it's such a high-profile case," says Byrd. "Unfortunately, kids get abducted all the time in this country. But the video is what has put this case in the spotlight."

While some observers have suggested that the video does not prove that Brucia was led away by Smith against her will, "it certainly eliminates a possible defense by the defendant that 'I was never with her,' " says Byrd. Add to the video evidence an alleged statement by Smith to his brother about where to find Brucia's body, Byrd says, and the case - like the Errol Watts double-murder case - may ultimately be about life versus death rather than guilt versus innocence.

"The defense in the punishment phase could center around Smith being a husband, a father, a working man," says Byrd, who testified for the defense in the Watts trial.

In that case, Tebrugge called witnesses who testified to Watts' character as a high school athlete, coach and teacher before turning to drugs.

The Watts case took almost two years to go to trial. Tebrugge says the Joseph Smith case probably will not go to trial before next fall.

Because of the overwhelming amount of national publicity surrounding the case - and the outpouring of grief and outrage about the crime in the community - might Tebrugge try to get the Smith trial moved from Sarasota?

"I've tried to do that a few times for big cases," he says, "but it's almost impossible."

'Give him to her father and his friends and let him feel the same pain and suffering as Carlie again. Here we go again protect(ing) abusers and screw(ing) the victims.'

- Internet user

Tebrugge, who closes six to 10 murder cases each year while his coworkers handle as many as 150 cases, has taught himself the ins and outs of technical evidence, including DNA, forensic pathology, ballistics, fingerprints and statistics.

"I'm still no doctor obviously, but I feel very comfortable in talking with those doctors and understanding the medical issues," he says.

When a forensic technician takes the stand, Tebrugge is able to ask pointed questions that might raise questions.

"I kind of distinguish between Adam the lawyer and Adam the regular guy," he says. "When I'm a regular person, if I ordered scrambled eggs and they brought them fried, I wouldn't send them back. I'm too much of a wuss in real life to have any kind of conflict. But if I'm in the courtroom I will take on the job."

After the Watts' trial concluded in May, Tebrugge flew to Los Angeles the following day for his stepdaughter's college graduation. Then he headed to Gerry Spence's Wyoming ranch for a weeklong seminar with 27 other attorneys.

"It was almost like group therapy for death penalty attorneys," Tebrugge says. "It was to inspire you and pump you up. The way Gerry describes it, he wants you to be able to get inside the skin of your clients so you can better communicate to the jury. The word 'law' was not mentioned the entire week."

Restorative justice

Tebrugge spends hours, sometimes daily, with his clients, so his view of them is different than the public's opinion, he says, adding, "It's different when you go over to the jail and you spend so much time with a particular client, you develop an entirely different perspective. ¦ It's actually very easy to find reasons to defend somebody in an honest and straight-forward manner."

Each year, since 1995, Tebrugge has shared his experience trying death penalty cases with other attorneys in a three-day seminar called "Life Over Death."

The seminar explores concepts such as restorative justice, which takes a victim-oriented approach to criminal justice. "It tries to make the victim whole again when possible," says Tebrugge, "while going beyond just punishing the offender. I believe that criminal justice should provide relief wherever possible, instead of just locking people up without asking what we're trying to accomplish."

Tebrugge also speaks about the future of criminal justice, and his belief that there should be more of a focus on overall results than simply on punishment.

"The portrayal of the public as being fed up with crime is true," he says, "but I've found that people are also thoughtful and open-minded enough to ask the question, 'Is what we're doing now really working?' "

Perhaps predictably, Tebrugge doesn't believe the death penalty is a deterrent to would-be murderers.

"The problem with the deterrence theory is that it assumes that the 'player' is rational. In my personal experience, most perpetrators of violent crime rarely reflect on the future consequences of their actions."

'Free more criminals'

Tebrugge's wife, Regina, a former colleague at the public defender's office who now teaches, says her husband was born to be a public defender.

She expects him to replace Metcalfe when he retires at the end of his next term.

"I am absolutely interested in the job," says Tebrugge, who adds that he learned a lot from his unsuccessful 2002 bid for the office of 12th Circuit judge, Group 5. That seat went to Charlie Roberts, a former prosecutor.

"Adam would make a great judge or public defender," says Derek Byrd. "But he's not a baby-kissing, hand-shaking politician. I think it's easier for a prosecutor to get elected as a judge anyway, because they can run on a platform of 'I'm tough on crime and criminals.' "

Tebrugge admits that it's hard to run for the office of public defender. "What can you say in your speeches? 'As public defender, I'll free more criminals?' Or 'I won't free more criminals?' "


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