Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 11:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 11:58 p.m.
There were sleepless nights.
Nights when Andy Owens, the former Florida basketball forward who still holds the school record for average points scored in a season, tossed and turned and wondered.
Mind you, Owens had sentenced people to death before. It was the least enviable of his duties as the Sarasota-based 12th Circuit Court judge in Florida.
Never before, though, had Owens presided over a case with as much publicity. There were times when Neal Walk called each time he saw Owens on Court TV, just to give his former Florida teammate a hard time.
So on the night of March 14, 2006, while Florida prepared for the first of its two straight basketball national title runs, Owens was alone in the den of his Sarasota home for some final moments of quiet contemplation.
"You have a heightened obligation because you have a man's life on the line," Owens explained. "And you want to just make sure that within your power you do everything correctly. So the whole time you're very tense."
Months before, a jury had convicted Joseph P. Smith on counts of sexual battery, kidnapping and first-degree murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, a crime made more heinous and sensational by the fact that her abduction outside a Sarasota car wash was captured on a surveillance camera. Brucia was walking home from a sleepover when she was kidnapped.
By a 10-2 vote, the jury returned a recommendation for the death penalty. Smith's life now rested with Owens' decision.
"From a legal standpoint, I was well-briefed, but it's just so emotional to be involved with it, emotionally draining," Owens said. "You don't realize it until all of the sudden you realize your life has been a blur for about the last three months and your wife says ‘Well, I'm glad you're home, finally,’ because every night you're trying to read and prepare."
The next morning, Owens read the sentence. For the counts of sexual battery and kidnapping, Smith received consecutive life terms. For the murder, Owens sentenced Smith to lethal injection.
"No one likes to impose the death penalty," Owens said, reflecting on the decision. "The fortunate thing is at least I've had some training.
"But the difficulty to me with the death penalty is that whenever you are involved with that case, there's such a tragedy involved and then I ask the jurors to make this recommendation that they are not trained (to make) at all. Then, the way Florida implements the death penalty, it takes so long that the families that are involved never have closure."
Owens was a standout basketball player at Tampa Hillsborough High who had offers to play at North Carolina, Miami and Kentucky.
Instead, the 6-foot-5 Owens chose Florida, which had started to develop a winning identity in the 1960s under former coaches Norm Sloan and Tommy Bartlett.
"My parents went to every game I played and I grew up in Tampa," Owens said. "And my high school basketball coach, Bob Shiver, was the (former) captain of the University of Florida basketball team, so that tipped the scales in my favor to go to Florida."
At Florida, Owens quickly developed a reputation as a player who wasn't afraid to mix things up in the paint.
"Andy could hit you," said Walk, who played two seasons with Owens before being the second overall pick in the 1969 NBA draft. "He was about 250 pounds and he wasn't afraid to use that muscle. He worked really hard lifting weights and when he got muscle, he was a physical player."
Owens said his toughness made up for some of his on-court limitations.
"That was the only way I was going to make it," Owens said. "I've always sort of had a philosophy just as in life persistence in sports is what pays off. You just have to keep going."
On the court, former Florida forward and UF basketball television analyst Bill Koss compared Owens' game to current Florida forward Dan Werner.
"Andy had an excellent mid-range game, but unlike Dan at this point in time, Andy also had a knack for finding angles to get to the basket," Koss said.
When the ball went inside, Owens had one intention — to take the ball strong to the hoop.
"Andy's focus was on offense," Walk said. "We used to joke that when we kicked the ball inside there, it was a black hole. We knew it wasn't coming back out."
With Walk and Owens together in the paint, Florida went 18-9 during a 1969 season that ended with the school's first postseason bid. The Gators made the National Invitation Tournament in 1969, losing in the first round to Temple at Madison Square Garden.
Then, with Walk gone, Owens produced one of the most impressive individual seasons in Florida history. As a senior in 1970, well before the 3-point shot era, Owens averaged 27.0 points per game, surpassing the record of 26.5 points per game Walk set in 1968.
Owens also grabbed 9.1 rebounds per game to earn All-Southeastern Conference honors.
The scoring record still stands, more than 37 years later.
"It was a different time," Owens said. "Most teams only had one big scorer. LSU had Pete Maravich. Kentucky had Dan Issel. The game has changed in that there are so many more athletes, so many more options. I don't think you'll see it (broken) in the Billy Donovan era because he's about team, spreading the ball around."
A different court
When his college career ended, Owens thought the NBA would be the next step. He had already graduated with honors the December before his final season ended.
"I got drafted by New Orleans and Chicago, but I was drafted in like the seventh round," Owens said. "And back then, you know, they'll send you a contract in the mail, and pay you $30,000 if you make the team, you come to the tryouts and we'll pay you $200. I should have gone to Europe. I had some opportunities."
A member of the Blue Key Leadership Society, Owens had maintained excellent grades at Florida and earned an NCAA post-graduate scholarship.
Owens had majored in finance and also thought of leaving school after his undergraduate studies to become a stock broker.
"But academics had been stressed so much by my family, so when I had that scholarship to go to law school, I decided to go to law school," Owens said.
Studies got off to a rocky start. Owens enrolled in law school the spring after his senior season at Florida.
"That was a mistake," Owens said. "Usually after basketball season is over, you are exhausted and you sort of coast for a while, and I went right into law school and was still in that coasting mode. So I started off very poorly academically."
Owens regrouped, earning his law degree from Florida in 1972. Initially, Owens thought he would become an office practitioner.
"I really didn't want to get in the courtroom, but once I got out and started practicing, the competition that you've gone through in sports, you can only find that in the courtroom," Owens said.
Owens began his career in Punta Gorda, working civil cases for a firm that defended insurance companies. Then, in 1982, Owens was appointed by former Gov. Bob Graham as judge in the 12th Circuit, which covers the counties of DeSoto, Sarasota and Manatee.
The appointment lasted for two years. Then, Owens ran for re-election, unopposed, and won a six-year term. He's been on the same bench since.
"Fortunately, I've never had anyone run against me," Owens said. "That's always been great. So hopefully that continues. I'm up for election again this coming year."
While Owens has presided over some high-profile cases, he says his most gratifying work comes when he can give an average person a second chance. Owens has recently rotated back into the drug and mental health court, which provides a year-long education and rehabilitation program for those facing felony drug charges. Upon completion of the program, the felony is reduced to a misdemeanor.
"Drugs have so invaded our society that young kids, they feel bulletproof and they're unable to look into the future," Owens said. "And really good kids, we don't take a kid into the program that's a bad person. We only take people that have made a stupid choice."
Owens said those who have completed the program often stop by to thank him.
"They are in a suit and tie, they have a good job," Owens said. "That just makes your day."
Owens remains a die-hard Gator fan who makes it to most football and basketball games. At a recent Florida basketball game in Tampa against Vermont, Owens marveled at the job current coach Billy Donovan has done with the program and was pleased that Donovan invited former players back during both national championship ring ceremonies.
It's unclear how much longer Owens will remain on the bench, but he says he approaches his job with the same zeal with which he started more than 25 years ago.
"I try to have fun every day," Owens said. "I think I'm one of the luckiest people in the world. Life has been easy to me, things have come my way much more than I deserve. I just try to be appreciative about all of the wonderful things that have happened to me."
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