TAMPA — There is a key on a shelf in the courthouse basement. Its color is almost silver with a touch of gold. The shaft is a hollow cylinder, studded at the tip like the barrel of a gun.
Objects are morally neutral. They comply with the forces of nature and the will of those who wield them. They deserve neither credit nor blame. Still, when you look at this key, when you hold its cool metal in the palm of your hand, you are tempted to wish it had never been forged.
Without it, perhaps, three dead men would still be alive. Four if you count the killer.
Who knows where he got it. A gun show or an army surplus store. Couple of bucks. He strung it from twin gold chains and hid it on his person. It was there when he needed it, on the day the rifle went off and killed the boy, when the police had him in the back of their car, when he jammed that key into the handcuffs and set himself free.
The rest is too familiar: three cops dead, chase up the interstate, standoff at the gas station. Just before he shot himself he handed the key to his hostage and asked her to get it to his family. She gave it to the police.
The key became Exhibit No. 30 in State of Florida vs. Bernice Bowen, the killer's girlfriend.
"Bernice Bowen had a key that day," Assistant State Attorney Shirley Williams told the jury. "She had a key that would have prevented every one of those tragedies. All she had to do was tell the truth. All she had to do was say, 'His real name is Hank Earl Carr. He's a fugitive out of Ohio and other states. He's a wanted felon. He's a dangerous man. He's vowed never to go back to jail. He always carries a handcuff key and he said he would kill any cop who tried to take him in.' "
The state locked up both Bowen and the key, which joined nearly 200,000 pieces of evidence in the custody of the Hillsborough County Clerk of Court. Now it is sealed in hurricane-proof plastic, watched by motion-detecting infrared cameras, near a sawed-off shotgun and a broken crossbow in a bank-grade vault that smells like disinfectant.
It is scheduled to stay there until all appeals are exhausted, all sentences served. Bowen's projected release date is July 27, 2017. The clerk will send the key back to the police. Nothing personal. Merely protocol. But already there is a plan. They will grind it down and throw it away.
Thomas Lake can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3416.