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Death Sentence Affirmed for Florida Prisoner Convicted in Guard’s Death During Botched Escape

By David M. Reutter

The Florida Supreme Court has affirmed the death sentence of a prisoner convicted in the murder of a guard during a botched prison escape. Stephen Smith and his codefendants, Dwight Eaglin and Michael Jones, were convicted for first-degree murder of Charlotte Correctional Institution (CCI) guard Darla K. Lathram.

The three prisoners were part of a group of five prisoners assigned to renovate CCI dormitories into close management units in 2003. Smith and Jones began formulating a plan to escape earlier that year, but when their plan was thwarted, they developed a new plan with Eaglin.

Their plan was to join several ladders together so they would rise sixteen feet above the ground and span the tops of both perimeter fences. With the ladder-bridge in place, Eaglin would go over the first perimeter fence and, when the guard truck grove by, attack the driver with a hammer. The plan was to escape during the dormitory renovation project.

On June 11, 2003, the prisoners put their plan into action after a head count was completed around 9 p.m. Eaglin started the incident by beating up prisoner Charles Fuston and locking him in a cell. Eaflin returned with a sledgehammer and beat him to death.
Smith and Jones then told Lathram they needed something from a locked map closet. As she was searching for the key, Eaglin hit her in the head with the sledgehammer twice.

As he put her body into the closet, Smith and Jones took the ladders outside and began assembling them. Before joining them, Eaglin went and hit the other prisoner on the crew in the head with a hammer. The plan went awry when the ladders collapsed, falling against the perimeter fence and setting off an alarm.

Guards responding to the alarm found Eaglin between the perimeter fences while Smith was climbing a ladder leaning against the inner fence. Upon seeing the guards, Smith and Jones ran into the dormitory, where they were quickly apprehended.

After he was convicted of first degree murder, the trial court followed the jury’s recommendation of imposing a death sentence. The affirming opinion of the Court was dissented to by Justice Anstead, who found the written and oral presentations of Smith’s appellate counsel, Ryan Thomas Truskoski, to be “fundamentally lacking.”

Truskoski was also representing another appellant before the Court. “In examining the briefs for appellants in those two cases, I was struck by both the similarity in approach and the facially flawed advocacy contained in both cases,” wrote Judge Anstead. “The oral advocacy was similarly lacking in both cases.” See: Smith v. State, 998 So.2d 516 (Fla. 2008).

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Related legal case

Smith v. State