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    Killer's girlfriend wins on appeal

    Bernice Bowen was accused of helping Hank Earl Carr, who killed her son and three officers in 1998.

    By AMY HERDY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 9, 2001


    TAMPA -- In a stunning turn of events, a state appeals court Friday threw out the convictions of Bernice Bowen for her role in the murderous rampage of her boyfriend, Hank Earl Carr, in May 1998.

    Bowen, who had been sentenced to 211/2 years in prison, had long maintained she had become a scapegoat in the shooting deaths of three police officers and her 4-year-old son.

    Judges in the 2nd District Court of Appeal seemed to echo that sentiment as they ordered acquittals on two of Bowen's convictions and new trials on the other three.

    "This is an emotional and tragic case that requires special attention to ensure that any conviction obtained is achieved through appropriate and rational deliberation," the judges wrote, "not through moral indignation or unfair prejudice."

    The ruling may open a door for Bowen's release.

    Bowen's attorney, Claude H. Tison Jr., said he felt confident Bowen would be cleared of all the charges related to Carr. And while Bowen also was sentenced to 15 years on two counts of child abuse for exposing her children to Carr, that sentence could now be drastically reduced, Tison said.

    The convictions related to Carr's rampage increased Bowen's sentence on the child abuse charges, he said. Without them, "she could not have gotten a sentence of more than a year or two."

    Bowen, now 27, already has served three years.

    Bowen was prosecuted under Florida's accessory after the fact law. Among other things, the law says the accused must have knowledge of the crime committed and must have given aid to the person who actually committed the crime.

    In their ruling, the judges found the state gave no specific details as to how Bowen allegedly helped Carr after his crimes.

    "A feature of the trial became what Mrs. Bowen could have done to prevent the crimes, not her criminal responsibility for aiding Carr after the crimes were committed," they said.

    The state prosecuted her as an accessory primarily because she failed to give police Carr's real name after the death of her son, the judges said.

    (If they had known Carr's true identity, detectives said at the time, they would have realized he was a dangerous person with a criminal past.)

    The other reason Bowen was prosecuted, the judges said, was because she failed to tell police Carr often carried a handcuff key, which he used to escape before shooting to death veteran Tampa detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell.

    The state focused much of its case on that handcuff key, the judges wrote in their decision, and it tainted the trial.

    "Ms. Bowen had no legal duty to volunteer to the police any knowledge she possessed about Carr's handcuff key," the judges wrote. They pointed out it might have been a different matter if Bowen had been asked about a key and lied about it, but she had not. The judges called the relevance of the key to Bowen's case "tenuous."

    The court's decision came as a blow to Tampa police. Many left work early Friday, distraught over the news.

    "It's a double-edged sword," said homicide Detective Bob Holland, who worked with Childers and Bell. "We're the family (to Childers and Bell), and we're the cops, and we still have the memories of those dark days."

    Still, Holland said, "It has to done the right way, within the system."

    Tampa police homicide Detective Kevin Durkin said he and other members of his squad were "absolutely convinced" of Bowen's guilt.

    "We have confidence the State Attorney's Office will take the steps to have her convicted again," Durkin said.

    The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office has 15 days to review the court's decision and decide whether to retry the case, said spokeswoman Pam Bondi.

    The tragic events of May 19, 1998, began when Bowen's 4-year-old son, Joey Bennett, was shot to death in the Tampa apartment she shared with Carr.

    Carr told police that an assault rifle accidentally discharged, killing the boy.

    After being handcuffed and taken into custody, Carr used the hidden key to free himself. He grabbed Childers' gun and killed the detective and his partner, Bell. He also gunned down rookie Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James "Brad" Crooks before killing himself in a gas station.

    While awaiting trial, Bowen said that she was sorry for the deaths of the officers but that she did not feel responsible for Carr's actions.

    "I believe what he did that day was very cold," she told a St. Petersburg Times reporter. "And I'm very angry at him for leaving me here to face this."

    After her conviction, a small group of supporters scraped together $8,000 and hired Tison to file an appeal. Tison said he worked for free after the money ran out because he felt Bowen had been done an injustice.

    "It was a case that never should have been brought up in the first place," he said Friday.

    Bowen was stripped of her parental rights and her surviving child, 5-year-old Kayla, was placed with a great-aunt in Ohio. Now 8, Kayla has been legally adopted, said Department of Children and Families spokesman Tom Jones, and nothing in the reversal of Bowen's criminal cases would affect that situation.

    Tison said he had not yet been able to talk with Bowen.

    Bowen's supporters said Friday that she had maintained faith her appeal would be granted.

    One supporter -- Deb Baillie, a 43-year-old Treasure Island resident -- has corresponded with Bowen since 1999. She said many of Bowen's supporters were women age 60 or older.

    "Those were the strongest voices in the community for Bernice," she said.

    Bowen, who is at Dade Correctional in South Florida, recently acquired her GED, Baillie said, and is preparing to take a correspondence course in optometry.

    Baillie said she began writing to Bowen because as a mother herself, she sympathized with Bowen's losing her son.

    Bowen's letters are often full of pain, Baillie said. Sometimes she tucks a poem in with her letters. Shortly after her arrest, unable to meet the $100,000 bail set, Bowen sent a poem to Baillie that began:

    Sitting alone in my cell at night,

    Wishing I could win this fight,

    God knows these charges are not right.

    - Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386.

    Key events in the Bernice Bowen case

    1998

    May 19 (all times are approximate)

    -- 9:30 a.m.: Four-year-old Joey Bennett is shot in the Tampa apartment Hank Earl Carr and Bernice Bowen share. Carr says gun went off accidentally.

    -- 12:30 p.m.: Bowen gives taped statement to police; refers to Carr by one of his aliases, "Joseph Bennett."

    -- 2 p.m.: Carr is riding in the back seat of a police car, his hands cuffed in front of him. Detective Ricky Childers is at the wheel, Detective Randy Bell in the passenger seat. Carr uses a hidden key to unlock his handcuffs, grabs Childers' gun and kills both officers.

    -- Before 2:30 p.m.: Bowen tells police her boyfriend uses names including "Hank" and "Carr" but detective later testifies Bowen did not place the two names together.

    -- 2:30 p.m.: Carr shoots Trooper James B. Crooks on an Interstate 75 exit ramp to State Road 54 in Pasco County.

    -- 3 p.m.: Carr leaves I-75 at State Road 50 to avoid roadblock in Hernando County. He pulls into a Shell station and takes a clerk hostage.

    -- 7:30 p.m.: Carr releases clerk and kills himself.

    May 28: Bowen is arrested and charged with a second-degree felony for leaving Joey with Carr, and a third-degree felony for leaving her daughter, Kayla, 5, with Carr (who was a convicted felon wanted in several states). Bowen is held without bail.

    May 29: Hillsborough Public Defender's Office refuses to represent Bowen, saying it had raised money for the officers' families and would have a conflict in representing her.

    June 8: Hillsborough County Judge Walter "Buzzy" Heinrich sets bail for Bowen at $50,000.

    June 16: In the killings of the law enforcement officers, Bowen is charged with three counts of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. She also is charged with one count of accessory after the fact to Carr's escape.

    June 17: Heinrich increases Bowen's bail to $100,000. Ultimately, Bowen remains in jail until her trial.

    Dec. 17: Bowen is charged with being an accessory after the fact in her son's death.

    1999

    May 28: After four hours of deliberation, jury finds Bowen guilty of all five charges.

    June 1: Bowen pleads guilty to child abuse charge for endangering Kayla.

    June 3: Bowen pleads guilty to child abuse charge for endangering Joey.

    July 1: A pre-sentencing report says Bowen's father sexually abused her from the time she was a child. Later, the report says, Carr physically abused her and put her in fear for her life.

    July 6: Circuit Judge Daniel Perry gives Bowen the maximum sentence of 211/2 years for the five accessory after the fact convictions. On the child abuse charges, she is sentenced to a concurrent 15 years.

    - Compiled by news researcher John Martin.

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