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Boyfriend found guilty of killing with fire

Jurors reject the idea that the killing was premeditated, convicting the man of third-degree murder.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2001


Jurors reject the idea that the killing was premeditated, convicting the man of third-degree murder.

TAMPA -- Forty-six-year-old Gwendolyn Bell lived with her mother, but on some nights she didn't come home.

Bell never told her mom where she went, but relatives suspected she was staying with Johnny Harrington Jr., an on-again, off-again boyfriend for 15 years. Although her family disapproved, Bell, a nurse, continued to see him until July 25, 1999.

On that morning, Harrington brought Bell to the hospital in a trench coat, her face, arms and back severely burned.

"Look at what he did to me," she said in the emergency room. "He tried to kill me."

Days later, she died at the hospital.

In court this week, prosecutors used those words to accuse Harrington of a cold-blooded, premeditated murder.

But her words did not convince a jury that Harrington had planned to kill her.

In a compromise verdict, the jury Friday found Harrington guilty of arson and third-degree murder. Prosecutors wanted a first-degree murder conviction, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

Instead, Harrington, 51, could face between 15 to 45 years in prison.

Bell's family, who sat arm-in-arm during the trial, left the courthouse in silence. Her sister, a Tampa police officer, hugged a friend.

Throughout the week, they heard defense attorney Michael Benito argue that Bell, who was smoking crack cocaine and drinking with Harrington, had set herself on fire in Harrington's apartment, then lied about it out of shame.

"When it came to her relationship with Johnny Harrington, her sister said she was self-destructive," Benito said. "And ultimately, she did self-destruct."

The morning she was burned, neighbors heard the couple fighting about 7:30 a.m. in Harrington's apartment at the Fountain Bridge Apartments in north Tampa.

The night before, Harrington testified, he was drinking malt liquor and she was drinking vodka. Both smoked crack. Bell's blood-alcohol level was 0.21, nearly three times the level at which the law presumes impairment.

Prosecutors argued that Harrington doused her with lamp oil, held her down and lit her on fire.

Harrington said Bell splashed herself with lamp oil and set herself on fire. Harrington said he asked her, "Gwen, why did you do that?"

But his account kept changing during cross-examination. Prosecutor Shirley Williams asked him why the smoke alarm was knocked to the ground. Harrington said it wasn't working.

Experts had tested the smoke alarm, and it worked fine, she said.

Harrington said he took down the smoke alarm to keep it from beeping when he cooked. He then left the alarm on the floor, he said.

What about the fact that Harrington had cleaned the carpet, washing up lamp oil?

He was spot-cleaning the carpet, coincidentally, before Bell came over, he said.

And the burns on his hands?

Harrington showed how he used the palms of his hand to help put out the flames. But his palms weren't burned, Williams said. Harrington couldn't explain what happened.

Harrington never called 911, even though there was a cell phone in his apartment and other apartments around him. Williams said it took between 75 minutes and 90 minutes to drive her to St. Joseph's Hospital, a distance of 51/2 miles.

But Harrington's lawyer asked jurors why Harrington would take her to the hospital at all if he wanted her dead. Bell went willingly with him in his car, he said.

"Isn't she the least bit concerned that he might want to finish the job?" Benito asked. "No, she isn't. Because he didn't burn her."

Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett will impose punishment on Sept. 19.

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