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Woman acquitted of husband's murder

Joyce Hernandez's relatives were so confident she would be acquitted of murder that they had a plane ticket ready before the verdict was announced.

The optimism was on target.

Jurors deliberated just 90 minutes Friday before finding her not guilty of killing her husband two years ago in their home on Hague Court in Spring Hill.

By evening, Mrs. Hernandez had left behind her handcuffs and jail uniform and was flying to New York.

Her lawyer said she was elated at the prospect of spending the holidays with her sons, 5 and 7, whom she hadn't seen since her arrest in May on a charge of first-degree murder.

"Driving back to the jail, she looked at me and said, "Oh, my God, Christmas . . . Thanksgiving!' " said attorney Arthur Eggers, who accompanied her to the Hernando County Jail before she was released.

"I said, "What about Halloween?' " Eggers said.

She gave a "big, beaming smile," he said.

It was a considerably different day for relatives of her husband, Ronnie Hernandez, 32, who was shot to death in May 1992 and left in the trunk of his own car.

He wasn't found until several days later, when the smell of his corpse attracted the attention of employees outside the Holiday Inn at Weeki Wachee.

The dead man's relatives walked out of the Brooksville courthouse Friday with grim faces, still convinced the widow was guilty.

"It was self-evident," said brother Richard Hernandez, an artist from New York City. "We have to live with this for the rest of our lives.

"We are, of course, dismayed with the outcome," he said, "but this is the American system of justice, and it's not perfect."

A juror said deliberations were fairly straightforward.

"I believe a murder was committed, and I have my own gut feelings," Terry Hammond said. "But I can't go by that. I have to go by the evidence.

"We were all looking for a smoking gun," he said. "As far as I was concerned, the state did not satisfy the burden of proof. That's it. . . . It was cut and dried."

Circumstantial evidence showed a killing may have occurred in the couple's house, Hammond said, including testimony that someone, probably Mrs. Hernandez, had scrubbed and cleaned the home about the time her husband vanished.

Nevertheless, Hammond said, "I can't convict her on that.

"I think you can hear my frustration," he added.

The case came down to this:

Prosecutors said that they found signs of blood in the kitchen, that Mrs. Hernandez had been unhappy in her marriage and that she was seen outside the home the night of the disappearance asking unidentified men whether they had "cleaned out the van yet."

Prosecutors also said she changed her version of events repeatedly in the days after her husband disappeared.

Before the body was found, they said, when he was still officially missing, she had sex twice in her house with a lover. Prosecutors said that showed she already knew her husband was dead.

Defense attorneys countered by saying, essentially: Where's the evidence?

They pointed out that a murder weapon was never found and that the exact time and place of the murder were up for debate. They also made much of the fact that Hernandez had a history of drug use. They suggested he was killed by drug dealers with whom he had fallen out.

"It was a very, very hard case," said Assistant State Attorney Donald Scaglione, the prosecutor. "It was entirely circumstantial evidence. I think that made it that much harder. Juries like to have something to hang on to."

Scaglione said he still believes in his case but respects the jury's decision. "You do the best job you can," he said. "Then you dust yourself off and keep on going."

Now what?

Scaglione said the case remains open and the sheriff's investigation continues.

Authorities apparently think others were involved because they made a point of explaining during the trial that they weren't accusing Mrs. Hernandez of having actually pulled the trigger.

In addition, a neighbor testified that he saw men outside the house with Mrs. Hernandez the night of the disappearance. The group was discussing how to clean out a van, the neighbor said. That observation, if accurate, means others were at the house either when or soon after the killing is thought by authorities to have taken place.

Scaglione declined to say Friday whether other arrests are expected.

Richard Hernandez, the brother, said his family never wants to see Joyce Hernandez again, nor any of her relatives. "At least let there be closure," he said. "Let them go their way, and let our family go our way, and may God protect us all."

He mentioned his young nephews, who have been in the custody of Mrs. Hernandez's mother and will now be with Mrs. Hernandez.

"We would love to have the opportunity to contribute to their lives," he said. "But the package would come with" her and her family. "We don't ever want to see any of those people again."