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Charles Trice guilty of murdering his wife

A few weeks before her best friend's death, Kathy Garrison made a promise to Darla Trice. She promised that if Darla's husband killed her, she would make sure everyone knew what Darla had gone through in her fight to get away from him.

As tears shone in her eyes on the courthouse steps late Tuesday, Garrison said a jury had helped her keep that promise.

After seven hours of deliberation, a six-man, six-woman jury rejected Charles Trice's claim that he shot his wife in self-defense after she stabbed him. Instead, they found Trice guilty as charged of first-degree murder, burglary with assault or battery and violation of a domestic injunction. Jurors declined to comment on the case.

Stone-faced, the former state trooper with the slicked-backed hair was taken away in handcuffs.

"This was what I promised Darla I would do," Garrison said. "I know she's smiling up there."

The victim's mother, Nadine White, wept in the arms of her family. Then she turned to Trice's family as they were silently leaving the courtroom.

"I'm sorry this happened to you," she said, her voice breaking. "I wouldn't wish this on you, Mrs. Trice."

Trice faces a maximum of two life sentences at a hearing scheduled for Aug. 21. Ironically, that was the birth date of Darla Trice's first child, who died soon after she was born. She was burying her baby at the Mount Enon Cemetery in Plant City when she was introduced to Trooper Charles Trice, who was a security guard there.

The jury spent the week learning about the Trices' relationship. The couple won more than $400,000 in the Fantasy Five lottery, built a spacious house in a Plant City suburb and had a daughter they named Christina.

But the marriage turned ugly. Darla Trice, 26, started telling friends she was afraid of her husband, who was so controlling he would time her trips to the grocery store.

Finally, on the night of Dec. 8, 1993, she fled to a neighbor's home and called police. She got an injunction and filed for divorce. But Trice was allowed to use an office at the back of the home.

Friends said Darla Trice had simple, happy plans for her future: She and her daughter would get a smaller house, and she would go to school to become a pharmacist. But she lived her last months in fear of a husband who told her she would die before she would get away from him, according to testimony.

"Darla Trice didn't stand a chance," said prosecutor Nick Cox. "Not a chance."

Trice would say later that the night of the shooting, his wife was upset because he wouldn't let her have her car back. He said he was in the closet of his office when she attacked him from behind with a knife. He said he grabbed a loaded revolver off the shelf and shot her once in the chest.

"Divorces are terrible," said defense attorney Bennie Lazzara Jr. "I suggest to you this . . . brought out the worst in Darla Trice."

But prosecutors painted a more chilling picture: Trice had inflicted his own small stab wound with a paring knife and deliberately marked the closet wall with his own blood. Why, they asked, would Darla Trice choose a small paring knife from a butcher block filled with an array of long-bladed knives?

Prosecutors emphasized that Trice, a trained police officer, never helped his wife then or during his 7{-minute conversation with a 911 operator.

"The fact that she was still alive (when rescue workers arrived) was a miscalculation on his part," said prosecutor Karen Cox. "He didn't realize how tenacious she would be."

Trice took the stand and testified in steady, deliberate tones that he had never threatened his wife. His lawyers said he was a trained officer instinctively reacting to a surprise attack when he shot her.

But prosecutors pointed out that he should have used all other means to defend himself before using deadly force. Troopers acting on instinct are supposed to "double-tap," or twice-fire their guns and to render aid once they have fired.

Jurors in this case were allowed to consider some hearsay testimony _ what other people said that Darla Trice told them _ to decide what her state of mind was at the time of her death.

"She speaks to you from the grave through her friends and the people who knew her," said Karen Cox, "after he thought he had silenced her permanently."

A co-worker said Darla Trice was terrified when her estranged husband sat in the parking lot where she worked. A fellow church-goer said Darla Trice once asked for extra prayers because her husband threatened to kill her and make it look like self-defense. Sheriff's deputies who lived near the Trices said she called them for help, hysterical, after her husband had locked her in the house and left.

On the stand, Trice had an explanation for each incident. He went to his wife's work to drop off something. He never locked her in the house; it was merely a misunderstanding after she misplaced her keys. He said he never threatened to kill her.

"I would have no reason to do that," he said.

After the verdict, Mrs. White, Darla Trice's mother, hugged the lead detective in the case, Larry Lingo. The family vowed to seek custody of Christina Trice, 4, who is living with Charles Trice's parents.

"I told ya'll at the beginning we were on our way to justice," Mrs. White told reporters as she left the courtroom. "He may not be sorry right now, but someday he will be, if he's got an ounce of decency in him somewhere."

_ Times staff writer Shelby Oppel and Times correspondent Mike Mahan contributed to this story.