On the day of sentencing, Hernandez called his prosecution "a sham." He claimed the confession was coerced, that cops had planted the evidence "to make me look like an animal," and that officers had forced Bubel to rat on him.

Since his conviction, Hernandez has become obsessed with proving his innocence. Speaking to New Times at the Metro West Detention Center in Doral, he contends someone else killed her when he left the hotel room for three hours to buy some cocaine. "They said I knew her before I killed her — that's a fuckin' lie," he says. "I didn't know the bitch. I just went to the club to get lucky."

He says he pondered reporting the crime to police but chose to dump the body. "I got a room full of stolen electronics and a bag of coke on me," he explains. "It might sound callous, but when a body is dead, it's dead."

Jeanette Smith made thousands a night at Thee Dollhouse. It's also where she met her killer.
Courtesy of the Smith family
Jeanette Smith made thousands a night at Thee Dollhouse. It's also where she met her killer.
Ariel Hernandez says he was framed, although he admits he left Smith's body for the alligators.
Ariel Hernandez says he was framed, although he admits he left Smith's body for the alligators.

The most critical evidence against him is flawed, he explains, flipping through court papers with strong hands that are bound in silver cuffs. Then he reveals a report detailing a phone call at 4 p.m. March 20, 1999, between Massaro and Hernandez.

In the transcript, Hernandez says: "Listen, uh, things got a little messy yesterday. I tied up the loose end, and I got a package to get rid of. Oh, man, I haven't been able to sleep. My stomach is all fuckin' turned around. What should I do?"

Massaro answers: "I don't know. I'll talk to you in person. Let me shower and shave and I'll be out here, all right?"

Hernandez explains — his brown eyes dull — that the "package" refers to bogus checks.

In 2004, Hernandez refused a plea agreement on the state charges. The deal would have sent him to prison for life, but prosecutors wouldn't seek the death penalty.

Prosecutors say they plan to use semen found in Smith's mouth to link Hernandez to the crime. "The evidence is compelling, and on top of that, you have his confession," Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft says. "I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but he's earned it."

A hearing for Hernandez's trial is set to begin January 12.

The Smith family recently left behind the biting memories of South Florida for small-town Tennessee. Gina Smith says she isn't sure if her daughter's killer should get the chair. Her Catholic faith doesn't permit her to wish death on anyone, and yet she can't bear the thought of Hernandez alive — perhaps one day walking the streets. "After Jeanette was killed, the joy left this family," she says, her voice quaking. "It haunts me to this day."

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