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Judge won't step aside for woman's plea withdrawal

A woman in prison for killing her husband seeks to withdraw her guilty plea to a manslaughter charge in hopes of going to trial.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


LARGO -- A circuit judge has rejected a request that she step aside in the case of a woman serving a 12-year prison sentence for the stabbing death of her preacher husband.

Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell ruled on Wednesday that the attorney for Carri Rousonelos had not set forth "legally sufficient grounds" to disqualify the judge from the case.

Mrs. Rousonelos' lawyer, John Trevena, said the judge's decision probably ends his client's efforts in state court to withdraw her guilty plea to a manslaughter charge in hopes of going to trial.

Mrs. Rousonelos, 36, of Largo received a 12-year prison sentence in December after she admitted killing her husband, Anthony, after the couple argued over his affair with a parishioner of the St. Petersburg church he pastored.

Mr. Rousonelos, stabbed once in the femoral artery near the groin, bled to death.

Trevena tried to persuade the judge to recuse herself from Mrs. Rousonelos' case based on comments the judge made at a hearing this month. Trevena said those comments indicated the judge was predisposed to reject his client's plea withdrawal.

Mrs. Rousonelos has said she feels she was pressured into a plea deal so that prosecutors could hide her potentially embarrassing affair with a Largo police officer, a charge prosecutors and her former attorney deny.

At a March 9 hearing, Farnell told lawyers, "I see nothing on the record that indicates whatsoever that Ms. Rousonelos entered her plea anything but freely, voluntarily and knowingly."

Trevena said he would not file an appeal seeking to withdraw Mrs. Rousonelos' plea because he feels it is doomed to fail as long as Farnell presides over the case.

He said he might file such an appeal if Farnell ever rotates out of the criminal division to which she is now assigned. Judges routinely rotate to different criminal and civil court divisions.

"If another judge ever takes her place, then we'll immediately file" the appeal, Trevena said.

Such appeals, called motions for post-conviction release, must be filed within two years of sentencing.

Trevena said he will now file paperwork with Gov. Jeb Bush's office seeking clemency for his client or, at the least, a reduced sentence.

He and Mrs. Rousonelos have hinted at new, "explosive" evidence in the case that both say would exonerate her.

"We're confident that if the governor were to review this new evidence he would order my client's immediate release."

Trevena refuses to identify the evidence. Prosecutors say he is bluffing.

Prosecutor Bill Loughery said Trevena realized he did not have legally sufficient grounds to withdraw the plea and was now unfairly laying blame on the judge to save face.

"I think it's damage control for him," said Loughery. "He's done nothing more in this case than shoot his mouth off without ever filing anything to back it up. Most people recognize that how this case is ending is probably best. It just took Trevena a long time to figure it out."

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