1. Archive

Criticism of Bowen case gets response

State Attorney Harry Lee Coe issues a 32-page report on why it was appropriate for his office to prosecute Hank Earl Carr's girlfriend.

Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe read the newspaper that morning in the building where he has spent much of his life as a judge and prosecutor.

On that day in July, the St. Petersburg Times was full of letters about one of Coe's biggest cases, the trial of Bernice Bowen, girlfriend of cop killer Hank Earl Carr. A judge had sentenced Bowen to 21 years in prison for child neglect and for helping Carr after he killed three law enforcement officers.

An editorial headline in the Times read "Justice ill served," and seven letters described Bowen's trial as a "lynching," a "mob atmosphere," and a "travesty of justice."

Coe was not angry about the letters, but he immediately wanted to show the writers that the criminal justice system works. So over the next month, Coe and a team of lawyers crafted a 32-page rebuttal to the editorial and letters published July 9.

Last week, Coe sent the response, bound in a plastic cover like a term paper, to the Tampa Tribune, Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder, and every judge in Hillsborough County. He asked the Times to mail extra copies to readers who had written letters about the case.

"I consider our response and this document very important," Coe said this week. "This was quite an editorial. I didn't want it standing out there."

His response shows the depth of emotions about the case, which began May 19, 1998, when Carr killed his girlfriend's 4-year-old son, two well-known Tampa police detectives, and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper in one day.

It also revealed something about Coe. Unlike other attacks on his office, Coe saw the criticism as an attack on the institution of justice. It might sound corny, but it offended the essence of what Coe sees as his job to be _ an impartial servant of the law.

From the day Coe decided personally to charge Bowen, he promised to keep vengeance out of the case.

But a year later at Bowen's trial, it was hard to control emotions. Mayor Dick Greco and Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda went to court after the verdict to comfort the detectives' families. Relatives of the detectives wept outside the courthouse. And in the newspaper, some readers accused Coe's office of persecuting Bowen for falling in love with the wrong man.

The letters claimed Coe would never have charged Bowen if her boyfriend had lived. Carr killed himself before police could arrest him.

"If Carr had lived, she would be their star witness," said John Kromholz, Bowen's defense lawyer.

Prosecutors charged Bowen with being an accessory after the fact to her son's and the detectives' deaths, and for child neglect. Authorities said Bowen lied to police about Carr's identity and criminal past.

The Times editorial said Bowen suffered a "peculiar form of justice," as prosecutors kept her from her son's funeral, and police paraded her before television cameras in the rain. The trial should have been moved to another county and an outside prosecutor assigned to the case, the editorial said.

In his response, Coe said he would have charged Bowen with the same crime even if Carr had lived. He also would not have objected to letting Bowen, who was in jail at the time, attend her son's funeral _ if only she had asked.

Coe's response also detailed _ with footnotes _ the evidence against Bowen. And it explained that prosecutors charged Bowen for a simple reason: she broke the law.

Indeed, Coe's response, which reads like a legal brief, describes at length his responsibility as a representative of "the people." He even cited The Oxford Companion to the Bible to trace the historical development of the concept of vengeance in law.

"God's vengeance is an expression of his holiness," Coe quotes the book as saying.

Besides explaining his position, Coe's response also seeks to sway public opinion, which has been sharply divided on the case. Coe included two color photographs that show Bowen scantily dressed, in one case holding a gun. She is smiling in both pictures.

"It has been said that "a picture is worth a thousand words,' " Coe wrote. "These 2 pictures are worth two thousand words."

A team of lawyers debated whether to include the photographs, Coe said. But they decided to add the pictures because they show that Bowen enjoyed her life with Carr.

Normally, Coe does not respond to every article and editorial about his office. But this case was different, he said. It undermined the institution where he has worked for seven years as state attorney and 23 years as a judge, plus a few years as a private lawyer.

"I've known the people in this system for 35 years, and it's a wonderful system and a good system, and I don't want anyone to think otherwise," Coe said.

Coe, who still is called "Judge," keeps articles of faith about the system all around him: In his office's lobby hangs a framed letter from actor Gregory Peck, who played a crusading lawyer in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. On his bare desk, Coe keeps a King James Bible and a book about Mother Teresa.

Coe even thinks convicts believe in the system's virtue. People he had sentenced to prison would come up to him on the street to thank him for putting them in jail.

"Without exception, they say it is the best thing that ever happened to them," Coe said. "They wanted to be punished. Psychologically, they don't like what they are doing.

"You are only doing what they really want you to do."

Even Bowen's lawyer agrees that Coe's office behaved fairly during the trial, though he disagrees with the charges Coe filed.

"I did not see anything improper with discovery or preparation for trial or tactics for trial," Kromholz said. "I am not saying this for political reasons. I think they did not do anything unhanded."