STUART — It could run into the holidays before a grand jury is seated to determine whether to indict a handyman accused of killing a Port Salerno couple inside their home.
Johnny Joseph Manord, 55, of the 5400 block of Southeast Jack Avenue, was arrested on two counts of first-degree murder and one charge of aggravated burglary Sept. 9 regarding the Aug. 26 slayings of Donald Smith, 81, and his wife Lorraine, 80. He is in the Martin County Jail.
Manord accepted a plea deal, taking the death penalty off the table, and has agreed to serve three consecutive life sentences, said Tom Bakkedahl, chief assistant state attorney for the 19th Judicial Circuit that includes the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee County.
The next step in the legal process requires prosecutors to seek a capital murder indictment from a Martin County grand jury to formally charge Manord, but that can’t happen until after Oct. 5 when jurors begin returning for service.
Grand juries and jury trials were suspended in March because of COVID-19, but last month court officials lifted the ban.
If he’s indicted as prosecutors expect, Manord will be arrested again at the Martin County Jail. He’ll be scheduled to appear before a judge to enter the plea he agreed to, which requires he serve three consecutive life prison terms.
If Manord refuses the plea offer when he's in front of the judge, prosecutors would be free to seek a punishment of death if he’s convicted at trial.
An exact date hasn't been chosen for the grand jury, but Bakkedahl said it'll likely be in the first few weeks of October.
"We're working around a few dates (for the grand jury), we just have got to confirm with the 21 grand jurors, and we need 15 to show up, so we're trying to accommodate their schedules," Bakkedahl said.
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More: Handyman accused of two counts of first-degree murder
Manord was the Smiths' handyman. He waited outside of the couple's Port Salerno home on Southeast Hull Street the afternoon of Aug. 26, and when Donald Smith returned home and went inside, he went into the house through the open garage door, according to his arrest affidavit.
He hit both Smiths over the head with a heavy bowl, then cut their necks with a knife from the kitchen, Martin County Sheriff Will Snyder said.
He took $800, stole the Smiths' 2007 Lincoln sedan, bought crack cocaine and abandoned the car in the nearby Golden Gate neighborhood where the Smiths' owned rental property.
Two days later, the couple was found dead in their home when a friend came over to check on them.
A day after the discovery, Manord was arrested on unrelated charges of felony battery, possession of cocaine and use or possession of drug paraphernalia and was taken to the Martin County Jail; bond was set at $110,00.
The Sheriff's Office investigation led to Manord as a prime suspect in the killings, Snyder said. Manord later admitted to killing the couple.
During his plea hearing, it’s possible relatives of the Smiths will testify either in-person or virtually before a judge sentences Manord.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, it could take a week or longer for Manord to be transported from the Martin County Jail to state prison once his charges are resolved.
"Once he's pled and he's sentenced I would imagine they would then put him on the next bus out of town," Bakkedahl said.
If Manord doesn't enter a plea for the three consecutive life terms that were previously discussed, Bakkedahl said, the death penalty is back on the table.
"Negotiations for the deal are complete, but (Manord) hasn't stepped in front of a judge yet to enter his plea and he can't do that until a grand jury has indicted him for first-degree murder," Bakkedahl said.
He said the State Attorney's Office has spoken with the Smiths' family who agreed that with COVID-19 delaying the legal process and Manord's health problems, it could take five years or longer for a capital case to go to trial.
Another factor Bakkedahl said the family had to consider was that on average, most death row inmates are put to death in about 25 years. This would make Manord about 85 before he's on death row.
According to records from the Martin County Clerk of Court's office, Manord has an arraignment scheduled for Oct. 1.
Sara Marino is a TCPalm breaking news reporter covering Martin County. You can reach Sara on Twitter @saradmarino or email her at Sara.Marino@tcpalm.com. If you're a subscriber, thank you. If not, become a subscriber to get the latest breaking news.