Sunday, September 16, 2007

Schlemmer represents notorious


Joseph Smith.

Darrell Mitchell.

Blaine Ross.

Richard Henderson Jr.

It's a roll call of some of Florida's most infamous killers in the past five years. Speak their names and most feel a chill down their spines.

But not Carolyn Schlemmer.

She touches them.

She speaks to them.

She speaks for them.

She defends them.

It's her job to stand by them as the state brings all it has to convince judge and jury that they should die for their crimes.

Last month, Schlemmer successfully argued that Henderson should not be executed for killing four family members Thanksgiving Day 2005. Instead, the jury recommended, and the judge concurred, that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.

When the court clerk read the jury's decision, Schlemmer took off her glasses and wiped tears from her eyes.

"Even Henderson is a human being," Schlemmer said. "And if you save their life, of course you're going to be emotional.

"You have their life in your hands."

Henderson even voiced his gratitude for her efforts.

"I personally feel after this all has happened, if anyone would feel a spot of caring towards me, it is very surprising . . . meaningful to me," he said in a phone call to the Herald from the Manatee County jail.

Strong through it all

In January, Schlemmer was preparing for two of these vicious cases at once: her defense for Henderson and for Ross.

That same month, her husband, Steven, died of lung disease. He was only 38.

"I don't know how I did it, but I did it," Schlemmer said, looking back. "There's a strength coming from somewhere. I just wish he'd have been there. He was my best friend."

She drew strong support from her friends in her office and from her adversaries in the state attorney's office.

Bradenton defense attorney Colleen Glenn calls Schlemmer an incredibly strong person, particularly because she can stay focused on her cases, no matter what else is going on in her life.

"A true role model," Glenn said.

Said Henderson from jail, "No one could have done any better."

"I want everyone to know this woman has two kids at home that she takes care of by herself, and still is the best damn lawyer in Manatee County," he added.

Schlemmer is the only lawyer in Manatee County who is both board-certified in criminal law and qualified to defend those facing the death penalty. She never thought she'd be an attorney defending the accused. While in law school at Stetson, she wanted to be a prosecutor.

She stumbled into the job.

"I had to take the public defender clinic while in law school because the prosecution clinic was full," she said.

When she graduated in 1991, she first worked at a friend's firm in St. Petersburg, then accepted a job as a public defender in the traffic division in Tallahassee.

"It really was a job at the time I had experience in," she said.

She won her first case there and, within six months, was promoted to represent felony defendants.

In 1993, she took a job in Tampa, where she first represented a client facing the possibility of the death penalty.

In 1998, she moved to Manatee County.

The qualifying case: Smith

In December 2005, she was co-counsel on Richard Smith's murder trial in Sarasota. Smith was convicted and sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in 2004.

"She needed to have one more case in order to be qualified as first chair for capital cases, and Smith qualified her," said assistant public defender Adam Tebrugge, who headed Smith's defense team.

"Even more important to me, I gave her a significant portion of that case, and she wasn't able to start working on it until a month before trial," said Tebrugge, who works in the same office as Schlemmer. "But once I turned that part of the case over to her, I never had to worry about it again. She never needed any help.

"Jim Slater, who passed in May 2005, left behind (Jeffrey) Pompey and Ross, and Carolyn stepped right in and assumed the responsibility and took care of everything."

Tebrugge said Schlemmer has been the most valuable member of the public defender's office for the past two years.

"I've had to handle multiple homicide cases in a year, but have never had to have as many serious death penalty cases in a short period of time that Carolyn just concluded," said Tebrugge, who has worked in the office for about 20 years.

In the fall of 2006, Schlemmer helped convince a jury to spare the life of Darrell Mitchell, convicted of murdering Briarwood resident Susan Tharp in July 2004. Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison.

In April, she represented Ross, who was convicted of killing his parents in January 2004 and is awaiting sentencing. The jury recommended he be executed.

Then came the Henderson trial.

Schlemmer mounted an insanity defense, which the jury rejected. But she did convince the same panel to recommend that he not be executed for killing his parents, grandmother and younger brother.

"I do feel that no matter guilt or innocence, everyone is entitled to good representation and a fair trial," Schlemmer said. "Maybe that is why I can so easily represent the people accused of the worst crimes. I have a knack for separating feelings and work. You either have it, or you don't."

Take, for example, the case of Pompey, charged with killing two men with a single bullet fired from a rifle during an August 2002 robbery at a Bradenton Foodland supermarket.

"Prior to trial, she litigated whether he was mentally retarded and, as a result, convinced the state to no longer seek the death penalty," Tebrugge said. "Then they go to trial not once, but twice last year." Each time, the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

On the verge of a third trial, the state decided not to prosecute Pompey.

"That was an incredible performance by Carolyn," Tebrugge said.

"Carolyn has really distinguished herself, not only in our office, but in our entire judicial circuit, and I'm very proud to be associated with her," he added.

Her clients apparently agree.

Henderson, housed at the jail until he is transferred to prison, says he talks about Schlemmer with fellow inmates Ross and Davis.

Davis, set to stand trial this fall on charges he killed his mother and grandfather in 2005, is represented by Tebrugge. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

When Davis learned Henderson was spared the death penalty, he decided he wanted Schlemmer on his defense team, Henderson said.

"Even Blaine Ross, who a jury recommended get the death penalty, said she was good," Henderson said.

Joyce Henderson, the sister-in-law of Richard Henderson Sr., declined comment about her nephew's lawyer. Relatives of victims in other cases where Schlemmer represented the accused also declined comment, according to Susie Brown, manager of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office victim advocate unit.

More cases ahead

In recent days, Schlemmer can be found in her office, preparing for the defense of Jesus Ledezma, accused of shooting a man in the head at point-blank range in November 2006 in Bradenton.

And she is waiting for the state to decide if it will pursue the death penalty for several other murder defendants. They include Felipe Lopez, accused of shooting his estranged wife in June near Palmetto, and Thomas Fast, charged with murdering and dismembering his stepmother in late June in East Manatee.

Homicide prosecutor Art Brown relishes going against Schlemmer in court.

"I've enjoyed working with Carolyn," he said. "She is very efficient the way she prepares her cases. She's a respected colleague."

As she prepares to defend others accused of murder, Schlemmer focuses not on the gruesome side, but on the process. That, she says, is the secret to her strength.

"I like the battle," she said.

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