She is convicted of accessory after the fact in the murders of two detectives, and in Hank Earl Carr's escape from their custody.
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002
TAMPA -- For the second time, a jury looked at two faces of Bernice Bowen and chose the darker one.
As the defense painted her, she was the abused and frightened girlfriend of Hank Earl Carr. To the state, she was his street-smart partner in crime, even after he became a cop killer.
In the end Thursday, a jury decided Bowen lied to protect Carr after he escaped police custody and murdered Tampa detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers, charges that could bring her 18 years in prison.
It was the second trial for Bowen, whose 1999 conviction was scuttled on appeal. Even as family and friends of the slain officers rejoiced at Thursday's verdict, they recognized the appeals court may speak again.
"If we have to do this 10 times, we'll be back here 10 times," said Tampa police Capt. George McNamara, who was close to both of the slain officers. "I'll be here until I can't get out of bed, and I'm dead."
The jury of five men and one woman deliberated for 31/2 hours before finding her guilty of accessory after the fact in the first-degree murders of the two detectives, and in Carr's escape from their custody.
The bloodshed of May 19, 1998, started when Carr used an assault rifle to shoot and kill Bowen's 4-year-old boy. When investigators questioned Bowen, she gave a false name for Carr and said he had never been in trouble with the law.
In fact, Carr was a violent career criminal who wore a handcuff key, which he used to escape custody. After murdering the Tampa detectives, he killed Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks and later, himself.
But as police scrambled to find Carr while he was on the run, Bowen continued giving a false name for him.
The defense portrayed Bowen, 28, as a battered woman terrorized and manipulated by Carr into lying for him. In his closing argument, defense attorney Claude Tison said Bowen had never known "a relationship with a man that involved love without violence. She thinks that's the way the world is."
"If you've ever known a woman living in an abusive relationship," Tison told jurors, "you know what it does to a woman."
Tison, who called the state's version of events "a fantasy," said Bowen gave police many of Carr's aliases on the crucial day, including the name Hank Carr, though she didn't know "which one was his real, true birth name."
More important, Tison said, Bowen gave police the name and address of Carr's mother, whom he would contact while on the run.
"Is that the act of a person trying to help him get away?" Tison said. "She did not, after learning what Hank Carr had done, do anything whatever to assist him."
Prosecutor Curt Allen argued that whenever Carr got in trouble, Bowen lied to give him time to escape. Deriding the portrayal of her as "the abused, poor Ms. Bowen," Allen told jurors of her manner on the witness stand, where she appeared at times defiant.
"This isn't a timid woman," Allen said. "This is a hard woman."
Allen showed jurors photos that Carr took of Bowen, posing in lingerie. In one, she is holding a rifle and smiling. "How uncomfortable does she look?" Allen asked the jury. "How traumatized?"
Bowen liked the life Carr gave her, the prosecutor said. They stockpiled weapons and bulletproof armor. "This couple was preparing for war. Woe to anyone who stood in their way," Allen said. "Nothing could keep them apart."
The case featured a clash between lawyers with different styles. Allen, the telegenic prosecutor, spoke quickly and jabbed the air with his hands, his features registering every variety of moral outrage and disgust. He held Carr's rifles aloft and slapped documents dramatically on tables.
Tison, the defense lawyer, spoke slowly and deliberately, his manner mingling elements of Southern gentleman and rumpled professor, his face hidden behind a beard and glasses.
After the verdict, Allen called it the most important victory of his career and waited for the cameras. Tison left with few words save that he would appeal.
Friends and family of the slain officers, meanwhile, dripped contempt for Bowen.
"She protected this man from Day One," said Giselle Childers, the slain detective's first wife and the mother of his children. "Now she's got to pay for the choices she's made."
"When I see her, I feel no pity," said Glenn Childers, 30, the slain detective's son. "She lied, she lied, she lied."
"Four innocent people died at this monster's hands," said McNamara. "She could have prevented it, and she didn't."
Bowen's supporters, however, doubt she would have been prosecuted if Carr lived.
"She was the only one left alive to blame anything on," said JoAnne LaCroix, 53, of Seminole, who has followed the case closely. "They used her as a scapegoat because there was no one left."
In her first trial, Bowen was convicted of aiding Carr after he shot her 4-year-old son, the two Tampa detectives and the FHP trooper. The appeals court threw out the charges relating to the boy and the trooper, however, saying she believed her son's death was an accident and she didn't know about the trooper. This time around, jurors did not hear details of the death of Trooper Crooks.
Bowen could face 18 years in prison when Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta sentences her on July 12. She is already serving 15 years for child abuse for allowing her children around Carr.