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Small lie led Trice jury to verdict

At the age of 20, she found herself playing a role she never expected: forewoman of the jury that would decide the fate of former Trooper Charles L. Trice Jr.

"No one wanted to (convict) someone on first-degree murder charges, but the facts pointed against him, and that was our duty," said Amber Wilkinson, who helped decide a case that drew national attention. "If this happened to anyone I knew, I would want 12 people to do the same thing."

Wilkinson, a bank teller, was part of the six-man, six-woman panel that found Trice guilty Tuesday night of the first-degree murder of his wife, Darla Trice.

Jurors spent six days listening to testimony about the couple, who lived in Plant City with their 3-year-old daughter, Christina. They learned that one night, Mrs. Trice called police and said her husband knocked her around. They knew she got a domestic violence injunction, but that the judge allowed Trice to use an office in the house, where Mrs. Trice was killed the night of April 24, 1994.

Around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, the jury retired to decide: Did the 41-year-old former Highway Patrol trooper shoot in self-defense after his wife attacked him with a knife, as he claimed, or was this a case of first-degree murder?

The first time the panel voted on whether they believed Trice was guilty of premeditated murder, 10 jurors said yes.

Methodically, they went through the evidence. Talk focused on the deadbolt lock on the exterior door of the office, the only door Trice was allowed to use. Trice insisted he went in through that door that night, and not into the house through the garage. He said he did not lock the deadbolt once he got inside.

But a detective said the deadbolt was locked at the crime scene that night. A picture taken by the medical examiner clearly showed the door was deadbolted.

"That to us showed he didn't enter through the (office) door like he said," Wilkinson said. And once they decided Trice had been lying about that, the house of cards built from his other statements began to fall.

Trice had spent several hours on the stand, testifying calmly. He explained away other witnesses' testimony, saying they were mistaken when they testified he said chilling things after the shooting. Trooper John Kenneth Lane had testified that Trice stood in the bloody crime scene and said, "She sure made a mess in here, didn't she?"

"I didn't believe there was a reason for (Lane) to lie," Wilkinson said.

Highway Patrol clerk Mary Roundtree said she heard Trice say "I ought to just go kill her" a few days before his wife was shot. And despite a vigorous cross-examination, Wilkinson noted, "she never stepped back. She believed what she heard."

And while Trice claimed he became faint after he was stabbed, an emergency room doctor had said the wound wasn't serious and wouldn't cause fainting.

"I remembered that," Wilkinson said.

The jurors, like most people, came into the case thinking that premeditation meant the killer had to have planned and plotted, maybe for weeks. They learned instead it meant killing after consciously deciding to do so.

Defense attorneys contended Mrs. Trice, 26, attacked her husband in a wild rage in a dispute over a Corvette. Prosecutors implied he threatened and controlled her for months, maybe years, finally killed her and then staged a scene to make it look like self-defense.

But for the jurors, the case wasn't like a courtroom TV drama, in which viewers find out the whole story before the hour is up. Although the jurors generally came to believe Trice had not shot his wife in the closet as he said, they focused on the evidence and the law about premeditation.

"It was like one person said," Wilkinson said. "Whenever you have to take two steps to do one thing, you have enough time to think about it.

"We don't know what (happened)," she said. "The facts just show that there was time for him to reflect."

In considering the hearsay testimony of witnesses who said Mrs. Trice told them her husband threatened to kill her, Wilkinson said jurors were careful to use it only to determine Mrs. Trice's thoughts. The judge had warned them again and again, they couldn't use that testimony as evidence of anything Trice had done.

"We did believe Darla Trice was scared," she said. Her impression of Darla Trice: "She obviously loved Christina."

Mrs. Trice's parents have obtained an attorney and are seeking custody of the girl, now 4, who has been living with Trice and his parents.

While deliberating, the jurors were oblivious to the passing hours. When a bailiff knocked on the door to say dinner had arrived, they were shocked to realize it was near 9 p.m.

"Probably every one of us had a watch," she said. "We never looked down. We just lost track of time." They also convicted Trice of burglary with assault or battery and violating a domestic injunction.

Jurors knew without anyone telling them that the victim's family and friends sat on the right side of the courtroom, the family of the accused on the left.

"All of us feel bad for both families," she said.

Trice, who is alone in a cell at the Hillsborough County Jail awaiting sentencing, faces up to two life prison terms at a sentencing hearing Aug. 21.

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