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    A question of criminal responsibility

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 9, 2001


    TAMPA -- Bernice Bowen knew the real name of her live-in boyfriend was Hank Earl Carr. She knew he was a violent man who was wanted on a drug trafficking warrant in Ohio. She also knew Carr sometimes carried a handcuff key he could use to escape from custody if arrested.

    But according to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, Bowen's failure to relate that information to police on May 19, 1998, did not automatically make her guilty of being an accessory after the fact to the shooting death of her 4-year-old son by Carr, or Carr's escape from police, or his slayings of three law enforcement officers.

    In reversing two convictions against Bowen and ordering a new trial on three other charges, the appellate court ruled that Bowen could be held criminally responsible only if she had assisted Carr, "knowing he had committed those crimes."

    Yet Bowen did not know about two of the crimes, the judges said. She believed her son's death was accidental, and she could not have known that Carr had shot to death Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks, because detectives questioning her never told her of Crooks' murder.

    The court threw out Bowen's accessory convictions on those two deaths, then ordered a new trial on accessory charges involving Carr's escape and the murders of Tampa police detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell.

    Bowen did know about those crimes, the appellate panel said, but the inclusion of the two improper charges "prejudiced" her case on these three charges.

    Friday's decision makes a special point that Bowen might never have been charged if she had exercised her constitutional right to remain silent during questioning. If she had exercised that right, the state could have taken no action against her, judges pointed out. It was her "equivocal attempts to assist police on the day of the crime that exposed her to these charges."

    The panel also suggested that, because of the nature of Carr's crimes, Bowen suffered under a higher standard of prosecution.

    "From a practical standpoint, persons who eventually cooperate are not commonly prosecuted for accessory after the fact, because this would remove any incentive to admit their malfeasance and cooperate to assist the police," the opinion states.

    The judges noted that the state focused much of its case on Carr's handcuff key.

    "Ms. Bowen had no legal duty to volunteer to the police any knowledge she possessed about Carr's handcuff key," they wrote. "If the police had asked her about a handcuff key when she knew that Carr had already committed a crime, and she had provided false information, perhaps that would constitute the crime of accessory after the fact, but these are not the facts of this case."

    At the same time, the appellate panel did not absolve Bowen of all responsibility in the deaths at Carr's hands.

    "From a moral perspective, there is no question that Ms. Bowen must always share a portion of the blame for the death of her son and for the murders of three fine officers," the opinion says.

    "Through any number of actions, Ms. Bowen might have been able to prevent the crimes that occurred on May 19, 1998. For that, however, our law does not hold her criminally responsible."

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