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After 24 years, he's found guilty

A jury takes 22 minutes to decide the Navy petty officer committed first-degree murder in killing his teen girlfriend in 1976.

By ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2000


Kuenn Hutto
LARGO -- For nearly 22 years, James B. Kuenn kept a terrible secret.

On Wednesday, after one of the longest murder investigations in Pinellas County history, Kuenn told a jury via videotape what he had kept hidden:

He killed Carol Hutto after the 16-year-old resisted his advances during a 1976 tryst in a vacant house.

A jury of eight men and four women heard Kuenn's tearful confession and deliberated for 22 minutes before convicting him of first-degree murder.

Kuenn, who served on a submarine in Connecticut before his 1998 arrest, wore a stern expression as he was escorted from the courtroom after the verdict. He will be sentenced Tuesday.

The U.S. Navy petty officer, now 40, faces a sentence of up to life in prison. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Hutto's family and friends declined comment. A retired Largo police officer who investigated the case in 1976 said the verdict brought some comfort to the victim's family.

"There's really a big sense of relief," said retired Sgt. Tom Knapp, who testified during the two-day trial. "A lot of relief that justice has been served and a sense of closure for the family."

The defendant had been a suspect from the beginning, but through several interrogations, Kuenn denied any involvement in Hutto's death.

In July 1998, the investigators' luck turned when agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service asked Kuenn some questions about the case. The NCIS joined the investigation in 1994.

"You're sorry, aren't you?" Kuenn was asked by a sympathetic-sounding investigator in the videotaped interview. It was an accident, investigators told him, the actions of a teenager, not a grown man.

After 30 minutes, a breakthrough.

"It was an accident," Kuenn said, after bursting into sobs.

The words elicited myriad emotions from spectators in the courtroom. Several of Hutto's relatives wiped tears from their eyes. One Hutto supporter cried as she left the courtroom. Kuenn's wife, Ora, sobbed as she gazed lovingly at her husband.

The defendant avoided looking at various portions of his confession, staring at a legal pad with his left fist against his chin.

Kuenn brought investigators back to the damp, foggy night of Dec. 13, 1976, where he and Hutto went to a house under construction in their neighborhood.

Kuenn first gave this account:

They talked. They kissed. They had sex. Afterward, the two engaged in some horseplay, but Hutto fell backward on the floor and lost consciousness. Believing she was dead, Kuenn said, he panicked and dumped her body in a shallow pond.

Investigators were not convinced Kuenn was telling the whole truth. They pressed him.

"It doesn't make sense, brother," agent David Early told Kuenn.

Kuenn admitted he tried to persuade Hutto to have sex with him, but the young woman was reluctant.

"She started scratching and hitting me," Kuenn said. "She started raising her voice real loud. That's when I grabbed her throat and told her to be quiet."

But Hutto would not be quiet, prompting Kuenn, who had drunk two beers and smoked half of a marijuana cigarette, to hit her with a 2 by 4, he said.

"That's how she got hurt, and I tried to cover it up," he said.

The coverup included choking the unconscious Hutto and poking her in the chest with a stick to throw investigators off the track. He dumped her in the water, which autopsy results say caused her death.

Kuenn's lawyers told the jury their client made a juvenile mistake and was guilty of manslaughter, or perhaps third-degree murder. Prosecutors, however, insisted Hutto's death was premeditated and was committed during the act of another crime, an attempted rape.

At the end of the video presentation, Kuenn was told Largo police were being called to take him back to Florida. Kuenn was then asked how he felt.

"A little numb," he answered.

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