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Jury advises life for officer's killer

(ran NS S editions of Tampa Bay & State)

Six years ago, in a jealous rage, Lorenzo Jenkins fired three shots at his then-girlfriend. Last year, when he sought her help while fleeing police, she turned him in as a murderer.

On Friday she may have helped save his life.

Kathy Jenkins, who since 1991 has been married to the man who once shot at her, took the witness stand Friday to tell a jury her husband didn't mean to kill Belleair police officer Jeffery Tackett.

"I know that he didn't do this on purpose," she said. "He was freaked out when this happened, really freaked out."

When defense lawyer Richard Watts asked her to define "freaked out," she said, "I'm talking about panicked, I'm talking about sweating, I'm talking about 100 percent freaked out!"

Late Thursday, Jenkins, 32, was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting Tackett while escaping his custody. After listening to Mrs. Jenkins and other members of Jenkins' family Friday, the jury recommended Circuit Judge Douglas Baird sentence Jenkins to life in prison with no chance for parole.

Baird is scheduled to sentence Jenkins on April 11, and Tackett's relatives have requested they be allowed to speak to the judge before he imposes the sentence. They declined to comment Friday.

Under the law, Baird must give great weight to the jury's recommendation, but he could override it and sentence Jenkins to die in the electric chair. However, State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who led the prosecution of Jenkins, said that such overrides are rare in Florida.

McCabe said he was disappointed in the jury's recommendation, but he took some comfort that Florida law says anyone who kills a police officer is not eligible for parole. "At least," he said, "there's some solace in the fact that Lorenzo Jenkins will die in prison."

Tackett, the only officer on duty in Belleair the night of June 13, was called to a condominium next to the Pinellas Trail by a resident who thought she heard noises downstairs. Tackett found a burglar _ Jenkins _ trying to break into the condominium by using a butcher knife.

Tackett radioed his dispatcher that he had a suspect at gunpoint, and started to handcuff Jenkins. Jenkins struggled with Tackett and the officer wound up lying on the ground. Tackett was shot through the upper thigh with his own .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol.

During the trial, defense lawyer Michael Schwartzberg argued that the location of Tackett's only wound was proof that Jenkins didn't intend to kill the officer. If Jenkins had intended to murder Tackett, Schwartzberg contended, he would have shot him in the head or chest, not the upper thigh, slightly in the rear.

McCabe argued that Tackett was shot there because, as Jenkins aimed the gun at him, Tackett curled up in a ball to protect his vital organs and present a smaller target.

Mrs. Jenkins told jurors that her husband, although sometimes violent, is no killer.

"If he was going to kill anybody," she said, "he would be doing a sentence for me."

However, Tackett's thigh wound proved fatal. The hollowpoint bullet severed the main artery in a leg and Tackett bled to death in minutes, long before other officers could find him in the dark.

Meanwhile, Jenkins had clambered over a 12-foot fence, dropped the gun and fled on his 10-speed bicycle. He showed up at his wife's house in Clearwater, looking for help in removing Tackett's handcuff.

Although they had been estranged for several months, Mrs. Jenkins told the jury, "I helped my husband."

Throughout his trial Jenkins has maintained a mask of indifference, slouching in and out of court with no expression on his face. He was not like that the night of June 13, Mrs. Jenkins said.

"He was not calm, cool and collected," she said. "He was freaking out. He is not a cold murderer. If he meant to kill someone _ and I hate to say this with Mrs. Tackett in the courtroom and all _ but we would've been looking at a hell of a lot different crime scene here."

Mrs. Jenkins recruited two people to help remove the handcuff and then sent her husband on his way. After he left, witnesses said during the trial, she was stricken with concern about the man her husband had shot. She called Clearwater police and told them who shot Tackett.

Outside the courtroom Friday, Mrs. Jenkins said she sometimes regrets having turned her husband in, knowing he might go to the electric chair. She said she did it to save him from a worse fate.

"I believe they would've ended up killing him in the street," she said.

Since his arrest, Mrs. Jenkins has seen him only once, in jail, last week. The stoic face he presents to the court is a false front, she said.

"He's worried," she said, "but he's trying not to let anybody see he's flipped."

As for her own life since last June, the 36-year-old Ohio native said, "It seems like a big dream I can't wake up from."

She still lives in Clearwater but now works as a waitress in Belleair, fully aware of the irony. She remains married to a man now destined to spend the rest of his days in a prison cell.

"We said till death do us part," she said. "We're going to take it to the limit."

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