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    Notorious case back in Tampa court, thoughts

    The girlfriend of a man who murdered three officers will be retried on charges that she aided his escape.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 16, 2002


    photo
    Bowen
    TAMPA -- By the time Bernice Bowen decided to tell the truth about her boyfriend, Hank Earl Carr, on May 19, 1998, the worst of the carnage had already been done.

    At 9:30 a.m. that day, Carr shot to death Bowen's 4-year-old son, Joey. At 2 p.m., he used a hidden key to open his handcuffs and murdered Tampa Detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell. At 2:30 p.m., he gunned down pursuing Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks.

    Despite frantic pleas from investigators, Bowen waited until 3:45 p.m. to reveal Carr's real identity, police say. By then, Carr had only one person left to kill: himself.

    From the start, authorities insisted Bowen might have prevented Carr's rampage if she had revealed what she knew about the violent career criminal, including his habit of carrying a handcuff key.

    On Monday, Bowen, 28, will stand trial a second time to determine what criminal responsibility she bears for one of the bloodiest days in Tampa law enforcement history. But the case that unfolds before Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta at the Hillsborough County Courthouse this time will be markedly different from her trial in 1999, when a jury found Bowen guilty of aiding Carr after he shot her son, escaped police and killed the three officers. She was sentenced to 21 1/2 years in prison.

    Last June, the 2nd District Court of Appeal threw out two of Bowen's convictions, the ones that concerned the deaths of her son and of the FHP trooper. The court ruled she believed her son's death was accidental, and that she did not know of the trooper's death.

    But the appeals court ordered a new trial on charges she aided Carr after he killed officers Childers and Bell and escaped from police. In doing so, the court warned against the dangers of "moral indignation or unfair prejudice" in retrying Bowen.

    Bowen's supporters -- some of whom helped pay for her defense at her first trial -- say she has been made a scapegoat for Carr's crimes. Claude H. Tison Jr., Bowen's defense attorney, says people have approached him at church to wish him luck on the case.

    "I think there are a lot of people in this town that believe she's been unfairly treated," Tison said. "There was so much evidence that went into the first trial that had no business there at all. It was there only to smear Ms. Bowen, to paint her black. If this case is tried fairly, I have a hard time seeing how the jury could convict her."

    Although the appeals court's ruling didn't specifically throw out any evidence the state used in the first trial, Tison argued in a pretrial hearing Friday that prosecutors should not be allowed to mention Carr's handcuff key or his run-ins with police in Georgia and South Dakota.

    In the South Dakota incident, Bowen allegedly helped Carr escape police after he got in a fight, telling police she didn't know who he was. In the Georgia case, Carr ran across a highway to escape police after a traffic stop, in Bowen's presence.

    Allowing this to come in at trial, Tison said, would unfairly prejudice jurors against Bowen.

    But prosecutor Curt Allen argued they illuminated Bowen's willingness to lie for Carr, and that she knew he was wanted. Bowen's knowledge of Carr's handcuff key, the prosecutor added, showed the couple had an overall plan to dodge police if he should run into trouble.

    "I think we're getting into very dangerous waters here if that key is so much as mentioned," countered Tison, the defense attorney.

    Ficarrotta ruled prosecutors could mention the Georgia and South Dakota incidents, but withheld a ruling on the handcuff key.

    Bowen is already serving a 15-year sentence for child abuse for exposing her children to Carr. If she is acquitted at the retrial, that sentence could be reduced. If she is convicted, she could face an additional 18 years.

    "For the department and the families, it reopens the wound over the tremendous loss of Ricky and Randy," Tampa Police Department spokesman Joe Durkin said of the retrial. "You want to remember Ricky's jokes and Randy's quiet smile, not (face) a rehashing of their violent deaths."

    Around Tampa, thousands of automobiles still bear bumper stickers inspired by the tragic events of May 19, 1998: "Let them never be forgotten."

    -- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com

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