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Attorney seeks new chance at old bargain

It was a sensational tale _ the long-haired preacher's wife who stabbed her husband in a fit of rage over his infidelity.

"I never intended to kill him," Carri Rousonelos told the judge at her sentencing in December.

Maybe not. But she killed him real good. Anthony Rousonelos, pastor of Faith Assembly of God in St. Petersburg, bled to death after his femoral artery was severed by a kitchen knife.

She calmly called 911. The dispatcher asked who had stabbed her husband. "Well, I did," she answered. She washed the dishes while she waited for help.

What would a jury have done?

First-degree murder? After all, she got out of bed, went to the kitchen to get the knife and returned to the bedroom. Evidence of her intent.

How about second-degree murder, your classic crime of passion?

What about the lesser crime of manslaughter? Look, she stuck her husband in the leg. That is not how you try to kill somebody. An inch the other way and he would still be alive.

But a jury never got to decide. Given all this uncertainty, the state and Rousonelos struck a deal. She got manslaughter and a 12-year sentence.

Case closed?

Not anymore.

She has a new attorney, John Trevena of Largo. Trevena says his client deserved a lighter sentence. He blames her last attorney, J. Kevin Hayslett, for not getting experts to explore her state of mind the night of the killing.

"This is a lady who, by your own news accounts, washed the dishes while waiting for the 911 response," Trevena told me Thursday. "You have to admit, that is not a typical reaction."

Hayslett answers that Rousonelos got a great deal. She was originally charged by police with first-degree murder. Even for second-degree murder, the maximum penalty is life.

Compared to that, 12 years for manslaughter, probably getting out in nine years or so, looks pretty good.

Now there is a new twist. It turns out that Rousonelos, too, once had an affair _ with an officer of the Largo Police Department, the same agency that later would handle her husband's slaying.

Trevena says he thinks the state rushed her into the deal to keep this embarrassing fact quiet. The state told her it would pursue a more serious charge otherwise, he says.

Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney, told me Trevena is "grandstanding" with his coverup charge. If anything, the fact she had a past affair only made the state's case stronger by taking away jury sympathy for her.

If Trevena tries to reduce the 12 years, the state could ask the judge to undo the entire deal, Bartlett said. Carri Rousonelos could be looking at a new second-degree murder charge and a much longer sentence.

To me, the state's explanation of why it offered the 12-year deal is reasonable. Sure, maybe somebody somewhere was relieved that no dirty police laundry would come out. But there were good reasons to make the deal anyway.

Did they threaten Carri Rousonelos with a more serious charge if she didn't take the deal? Well, duh. That's how plea bargaining works. That's why defendants take deals in the first place.

Finally, it is easy for Trevena now to take potshots at Hayslett. Trevena doesn't have to worry about a murder charge, or what a jury might do. He has the luxury of second-guessing a deal that knocked murder down to 12 years.

But hey, it's a free country, and as long as the family is willing to pay for the lawyer, they are entitled to try. Despite the state's threat of reopening the case, the judge should make sure she ends up no worse off than she is now.

"In the end, she might not get a better deal," Trevena admits. "But you don't plead somebody out until you exhaust all possible remedies.

"At least, somebody's got to try for her."

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