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Rachel Wade guilty of second-degree murder

LARGO — The taunts, the threats, the drama, the teen love triangle. How did it all end with a girl dying in the street that April 2009 night?

Bad decisions, the jury learned in this week's trial, by so many of the young people who testified before them in court.

But there was one decision, prosecutor Lisset Hanewicz said, that led to murder:

Rachel Wade brought a steak knife with her when she confronted her teenage romantic rival, Sarah Ludemann.

"We know one thing for sure," Hanewicz told jurors, "if she hadn't brought that knife that night, Sarah would be alive."

The jury agreed. They found Wade guilty of second-degree murder after three hours of deliberation on Friday.

"Yes!" shouted the teen girls on the Ludemann family's side of the courtroom. Teenagers on the Wade family side teared up.

So did Wade, who sobbed as her attorneys stood by her. Her parents, Barry and Janet Wade, clutched each other as family and friends closed ranks around them. Their 20-year-old daughter faces a prison sentence of 20 years to life. They left without comment.

The parents of the 18-year-old victim, Charles and Gay Ludemann, accepted the verdict stoically. They held their heads high. Then they hugged the prosecutors.

"It's a tragedy for both sides," the father said. "That's all I got to say."

"Justice has been served," the mother said.

They'll have more to say Sept. 3, she said, when Wade will be sentenced. Both families will get to have their say.

Their words will mark the end of a tragedy that started with words — online taunts, harassing texts and threatening voice mails.

• • •

The jury spent the first two days of the three-day trial learning about the complicated and escalating web of teen drama that led to the Pinellas Park High School senior's death.

Wade, then 19, and Ludemann were at odds over Josh Camacho, the unemployed, 19-year-old whom the defense called a "playa." Camacho, now 20, was intimate with both girls at the same time and had a child with a third. "Friends with benefits," the defense said, over and over.

The jury also heard a series of threatening voice mails Wade left for the victim.

Then came their last confrontation. Ludemann was with Camacho that night, but he was texting Wade. Wade threatened Ludemann over the phone, two witnesses said. The victim and her two friends drove up to confront Wade.

The next few moments were subjected to hours of debate Friday as the state and defense delivered their closing arguments.

• • •

The defense said Ludemann and her friends got out at the same time. Ludemann went after Wade, pulled her hair and started punching her. Wade testified Thursday that she didn't even realize she had mortally wounded the teenager with the knife in her hand.

Defense attorney Jay Hebert repeatedly invoked Florida's "stand your ground" law, a legal defense against murder. It gives one the right not to retreat in the face of danger, to answer force with force.

"Sarah was the aggressor," he said Friday. "Sarah came to Rachel."

The state and its witnesses said Wade rushed at Ludemann and stabbed her in the chest, piercing muscle, bone and then her heart.

How, the prosecutor asked, could lethal force be justified in what was at worst a "catfight" between two teenagers?

"Going out into the street to meet Sarah with a knife? Is this defensive?" Hanewicz said. "Did she stand her ground or did she take ground?

"She did the latter. She was waiting to engage in combat."

• • •

After the verdict, Hebert said his client has few, if any, legal options to avoid the minimum sentence of 20 years in prison.

He lamented that Wade was not judged by a jury of her peers. The state struck all the 20-somethings from the jury pool, he said. The youngest juror was in his 30s.

A 20-year-old who didn't make it onto the jury came back to watch Wade testify, Hebert said. "Not guilty," he e-mailed the attorney.

"That tells me maybe it would have made a difference to have some younger folks," Hebert said.

But what about Wade's own profane threats, played over and over for the jury? And none of the purported threats that Wade said the victim made to her were recorded.

"Maybe if we had the voice mails that would have balanced those out," Hebert said. "But those tapes are very powerful."

• • •

It was a high-profile case from the start. It's rare for a female to kill another female, a crime that experts say is usually intensely personal. It also became a cautionary tale of technology and teen angst. It was broadcast by truTV, formerly Court TV. The media were out in force.

More than 100 people — including many teens — packed into the largest courtroom at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. Both families waited. A dozen bailiffs kept the peace.

The atmosphere was tense. So before the verdict was read, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Joseph A. Bulone had his say.

"We need to show the maturity and lack of drama," he said, "that was evidently lacking by all the people involved in this case."

Rachel Wade guilty of second-degree murder 07/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 24, 2010 12:14am]
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