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Debate on Bowen's role lingers

As Bernice Bowen's sentencing nears, some wonder if her fate would be different if Hank Earl Carr lived.


Previous coverage from the Times

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 5, 1999


TAMPA -- A wanted felon shoots his girlfriend's little boy, escapes from police and murders three officers before turning his gun on himself. Even before her 4-year-old son is buried, the girlfriend is arrested and ends up charged with concealing her boyfriend's identity from police.

Today, a year later, the girlfriend, Bernice Bowen, is jailed, awaiting her fate. When a judge sentences her Tuesday, the former topless dancer and Kmart clerk could get as many as 21 1/2 years in prison under state guidelines.

Has Bowen gotten a fair shake from the justice system? Or has she been made a scapegoat, the only living target for a city's raw grief?

While jurors at her trial had no doubt that under the specific language of the accessory law she indeed meant to help Hank Earl Carr on his day of murder, the public debate on whether she should be viewed as a victim or an accomplice lingers.

The arrest

Within hours of the deaths on May 19, 1998 of veteran Tampa homicide detectives Ricky Childers and Randy Bell and rookie Florida state trooper James "Brad" Crooks, attention fell on Bowen's role.

Even Carr seemed to anticipate police would look to Bowen. By phone from the gas station where he holed up before killing himself, he asked Bowen three times whether she was in trouble for what she had done.

Bowen, 25, was originally accused of neglecting her son, Joey, and her daughter, Kayla, by exposing them to Carr. Later, more serious charges were filed. Now she was accused of being an accessory after the fact to his escape and to the four killings. Investigators said Bowen had a plan in place to protect Carr and had said she would go out by his side "in a blaze of glory."

Some members of the public expressed doubt Bowen would have been arrested had Carr survived to stand trial. They wrote letters to newspapers saying Bowen was the victim of an abusive man and of the system.

John Kromholz, Bowen's court-appointed attorney, agrees. "She would have been the state's star witness in the prosecution of Hank Carr," he said. "She would have been assigned a victim's advocate. She would have been treated as a grieving mother.

"I don't think she should have been charged just because she was the only one left standing."

Nor would she have been charged had she been married to Carr. The accessory law does not apply to spouses.

Bowen's isolation in the justice system seemed to be underscored by the decision of the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, which routinely represents the most despised defendants, to sidestep her case. The public defender bowed out, saying the office raised money for officers' families and marched to a police memorial.

"That the public defender won't touch you says something about the level of hatred in the community," said veteran lawyer Brian Donerly. When he was an assistant public defender, Donerly represented a cop killer, a man who murdered an entire family and a person who starved a 6-year-old child to death.

The trial

She sat at the defense table, considerably heavier than when arrested, wearing inexpensive donated clothes. She cried. She looked angry.

The prosecutor said Bowen lied to detectives investigating the death of Joey, shot by Carr in the couple's tiny apartment. Bowen didn't tell the detectives Carr was a wanted felon with a hidden handcuff key and a vow to never return to prison, the state said, and she deliberately used her ex-husband's name for Carr. The detectives were led to believe they were dealing with a grieving dad, not a dangerous fugitive.

In his defense of Bowen, Kromholz leaned away from the emotion of the case and chose to emphasize the law.

While some of the public's indignation at Bowen's prosecution focused on the fact that the two slain Tampa detectives may have erred in how they searched and handcuffed Carr, Kromholz did not stress this in his defense. Instead, he relied on a timeline that he said showed Bowen told police Carr's last name and his mother's address soon after learning of the first police shootings. (On the stand, officers disputed claims that Bowen quickly came clean.)

Kromholz also would not "stipulate" or agree that the murders had occurred, which meant the state had to prove it through evidence like crime scene photos, so graphic they caused one juror to weep. Kromholz later said he hoped the photos would show the jury what a monster Carr had been. The photographs may have been something of a double-edged sword, risking the jury would associate the horrific scenes with Bowen.

Some local lawyers were surprised Kromholz did not present a full-blown battered spouse defense. Kromholz touched only briefly on testimony that Bowen was afraid of Carr, though he plans to present evidence of abuse and control directly to the judge at Tuesday's sentencing.

Bowen's own testimony may have hurt her. Though some jurors seemed moved when she broke down at a picture of her son's mutilated face, some said they were put off by her claim that she did not recall whether she was in the room when Joey was shot.

Regardless of what Kromholz had to bring to the table, the state had a strong case.

There was persuasive evidence that Bowen had long helped Carr dodge police. Witnesses said she helped get him an ID card in her ex-husband's name and once told police she didn't know his name after he got into a fight at a South Dakota convenience store. State evidence painted a picture of a gun-toting, irresponsible mother, one who did not hold her son after he was shot.

Ultimately, the case came down to the legal nuts and bolts of being "an accessory after the fact" -- an oddly worded charge for people who help criminals after they have committed a crime. The state had to prove that after knowing of Carr's acts, Bowen "maintained, assisted or gave any other aid" to help him "avoid or escape detection, arrest, trial or punishment."

After four hours in the jury room, jurors found Bowen guilty as charged.

"We did not look at her as being guilty for anybody being shot. We knew Hank did all of that," said foreman Donald Roy. "What she did was cover it up and hold back information."

The aftermath

At her sentencing before Circuit Judge Dan Perry on Tuesday, Bowen faces a sentence of 13 to 211/2 years in prison under state guidelines.

While Kromholz will ask for a sentence below that range, the dead detectives' widows and fellow officers indicated in court documents they want the maximum sentence.

"There is no restitution for the vast emptiness that follows," wrote Vickie Childers, wife of Ricky Childers.

There has been much discussion of the case in courthouse halls. Rick Escobar, sometime critic of police tactics, said he was first stunned by what seemed to him a "totally retaliatory" arrest. He later sat through testimony and said he agreed with the prosecution of Bowen.

"I think the fact that she actually engaged in conversation, deceiving law enforcement, put her over the hump," he said. "If she had said nothing, morally her actions would not have been good. But here she went beyond the silent treatment. She was assisting in covering up his identity."

But don't witnesses lie to police all the time and not get charged for it?

"There is no doubt that the fact that four people are dead, three of them law enforcement officers, played a role," Escobar said. "But should it not?"

Some local lawyers, including those who considered the detectives as friends, maintain that if Carr had survived to face the justice system, Bowen would not have been accused.

"Not in this world or the next," Donerly said. "Well, maybe the next."

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