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Slain man's wife fights jail deal

The new lawyer for a woman who pleaded guilty to killing her husband suggests the deal was made to hide her relationship with a police officer.

Carri Rousonelos was portrayed as a loving wife who killed her preacher husband in a fit of rage after finding out he was unfaithful.

For her crime, she received 12 years in prison in a plea deal in December on a manslaughter charge.

As it turns out, her husband wasn't the only one who was cheating. Mrs. Rousonelos had engaged in an affair of her own _ with a member of the police force that investigated her crime.

Mrs. Rousonelos' new attorney sees that as a conflict that could have compromised her case. John Trevena, who on Friday will ask a judge for more time to challenge Mrs. Rousonelos' sentence, wonders if the plea deal was an effort to cover up the potentially embarrassing relationship between Mrs. Rousonelos and a Largo police officer.

"I am suspicious that that is why she was pressured to enter a plea," said John Trevena, a Largo-based lawyer. "A police officer pursuing a married woman is something I would think is very embarrassing to the Largo Police Department."

Trevena questioned what he said was a lack of background investigation in the case. He said Mrs. Rousonelos' mental instability could have been documented and used to get a lesser sentence, perhaps one that did not involve prison time.

"I'm convinced that 12 years is extremely harsh based on the facts of this case," Trevena said.

Others involved in the case were outraged by Trevena's allegations. Mrs. Rousonelos' former lawyer said the deal was a victory; she could have gotten life in prison. The chief of the Largo Police Department called the coverup allegation "the most outrageous, ridiculous thing" he'd ever heard. And a prosecutor who worked on the case said Trevena's accusations were preposterous.

"I don't know whether he's ignorant of the facts or just has an insatiable desire to see his name in print," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

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The episode began last June, when Mrs. Rousonelos and her husband, pastor of the Faith Assembly of God church in St. Petersburg, lay in bed arguing about his infidelity and faltering career.

Mrs. Rousonelos got a butcher knife from the kitchen, returned to bed and stabbed Anthony Rousonelos in the groin, severing his femoral artery. He staggered from the bedroom and bled to death.

Mrs. Rousonelos was charged with first-degree murder. Four months later, her lawyer had negotiated the charge down to manslaughter with the understanding she would get 12 years in prison.

When she pleaded guilty and accepted the deal, Mrs. Rousonelos, 36, said she did so, in part, to spare her three children from the pain of a trial. The children now live with Anthony Rousonelos' sister.

"I never intended to kill him," Mrs. Rousonelos said Dec. 8 in a Largo courtroom. "But I admit my actions were wrong. As time has passed, not a day goes by that I don't seek peace for myself and forgiveness from God and my husband's family."

The lawyer who negotiated the plea deal on Mrs. Rousonelos' behalf said the facts of the case could have left Mrs. Rousonelos to an even worse fate _ perhaps 20 years to life in prison. She was lucky to get the deal she ultimately took, said Kevin Hayslett, a Clearwater-based lawyer.

"I'm telling you it's not a very good deal," Hayslett said, "it's a fantastic deal."

Hayslett said the affair with Largo Police Officer John Sevos _ documented in discovery material _ was potent ammunition for prosecutors who likely would use it to erase any jury sympathy she garnered as the wronged wife.

"You tell the same story and find out she was doing it too, then people will tell you, "She's getting what she deserves,' " Hayslett said.

Hayslett, who characterized Mrs. Rousonelos as a nice woman who didn't mean to kill her husband, said he worried that the effort to reduce the sentence could backfire. An attempt to lessen the prison time she received would jeopardize the manslaughter plea altogether, he said.

The reduced charge and the 12-year sentence were a package deal. Trevena's move, he said, potentially could leave Mrs. Rousonelos once again facing a first- or a second-degree murder charge. It would be a challenge, Hayslett said, to get less than a 12-year sentence on those charges.

Once the facts of the case are closely examined, he said, it becomes difficult to imagine an insanity plea and easier to see premeditation. He said her statements to law enforcement that her husband did not physically abuse her ruled out a battered spouse defense.

"Manslaughter," Hayslett said, "was a great disposition for a nice lady."

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As far as the plea deal being an attempt to cover up an embarrassing situation for the Largo Police Department, Hayslett called that "laughable."

Sevos, the Largo officer Rousonelos was involved with, declined comment, saying prosecutors asked him not to discuss it.

A member of the Largo police force for nearly nine years, Sevos has had positive performance reviews.

"Officer Sevos is a reliable solid officer," his 1999 evaluation said. "He can be counted on to make correct decisions under difficult circumstances and his peers trust his judgment."

Records show that Sevos, 42, was divorced in 1991 but Largo police officials said they did not know his current marital status.

Largo police Chief Jerry Bloechle said the officer had no involvement in the investigation and did not communicate with Mrs. Rousonelos after the stabbing. Sevos, he said, "acted honorably" in immediately stepping forward to disclose the relationship.

Hayslett, Trevena and Bartlett said Sevos' relationship with Mrs. Rousonelos was documented in a written report used to prepare the case. She was intimate with him, visiting him weekly in his apartment for three months in the fall of 1998, but they did not have intercourse, Hayslett said.

The intimacy involved hugging and kissing, Trevena said.

The fact that her relationship with the officer, which predated the killing, did not come out had more to do with how it would prejudice opinion against her than anything else, Hayslett said.

"It had nothing to do with the Largo Police Department," Hayslett said.

Bartlett called the relationship "a hammer" the prosecutor's office could use if the case went to trial.

He said the victim's family knew of Mrs. Rousonelos' relationship with Sevos. They also were kept apprised of plea negotiations and the terms of the deal before it was finalized, Bartlett said.

"To say there was a conspiracy or cover up, that's cheap locker room or water cooler gossip," Bartlett said.

Margo Ryder, Anthony Rousonelos' sister, declined to comment on the case.

But Trevena still has questions. His motion is scheduled to be heard Friday before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell.

Mrs. Rousonelos, who is serving her sentence at the Lowell Correctional Institution-Women's Unit north of Ocala in Marion County, will not be there.

"I am suspicious that Mrs. Rousonelos was pressured to enter a plea in an effort to hide a relationship with Largo police Officer John Sevos," Trevena said. "Clearly, there's something wrong here."

_ Staff writer Eric Stirgus and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report which also includes information from Times files.