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Woman has shot at new sentence

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

A woman who killed her husband will argue for a reduced sentence _ and might change her plea.

A Largo woman who pleaded guilty to stabbing to death her preacher husband got a chance Friday to challenge her 12-year prison sentence at a hearing next month.

Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell set a March 9 hearing at which Carri Rousonelos, 36, who pleaded guilty in December to manslaughter, will get the chance to argue for a reduced sentenced on the grounds she may have been mentally unstable when she killed her husband, Anthony Rousonelos.

Her lawyer, John Trevena, also argued that he thinks his client may have been pressured into pleading guilty to cover up the potentially embarrassing affair Carri Rousonelos was having with a Largo police officer at the time of her husband's killing.

Prosecutors, police and Rousonelos' former lawyer all vehemently deny the allegation.

While granting the hearing, Farnell appeared less than encouraging by indicating she might be unable to grant Rousonelos a lesser sentence after the Largo woman swore under oath in December that she was pleading guilty voluntarily.

"I gave her an opportunity to say, "Wait a second, I need to back off,' " Farnell said.

But Farnell said she would give Rousonelos a hearing in the interest of fairness. The judge told Trevena: "I'm really intrigued."

State Attorney Bernie McCabe told Farnell he thought Rousonelos, who did not attend Friday's hearing, had one choice if she thought she was pressured into a plea _ withdraw the plea and "start from square one."

Although McCabe's office routinely opposes such plea withdrawals, McCabe said he would make an exception in this case.

But he warned: a plea withdrawal will leave prosecutors free once again to charge Rousonelos with first-degree murder, a charge that carries a penalty of life without parole.

That's the charge Rousonelos originally faced until prosecutors, in a plea agreement, allowed her to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year sentence.

McCabe said he reluctantly approved the plea because of assertions that Rousonelos, a woman with no prior record, was truly a remorseful and sorrowful mother who wanted to spare her three children the pain of a trial,

"I feel like I was bamboozled," said McCabe.

McCabe said he was enraged by Trevena's allegations that his office pressured Rousonelos into a plea to avoid revealing her affair with Largo officer John Sevos.

So enraged, in fact, that McCabe decided to take the rare step of personally arguing his office's case at Friday's hearing.

"The allegations of a coverup are ludicrous," he said.

Trevena said Rousonelos' former lawyer, Kevin Hayslett, conducted an insufficient investigation of Rousonelos' mental health and the crime itself before negotiating a plea with prosecutors.

Hayslett has denied the charge and said the 12-year sentence was the best Rousonelos could have received under the circumstances.

With a little more work, Trevena said, Hayslett may have found grounds for a sentence less than even 12 years.

That investigation, Trevena said, will now be conducted before the March 9 hearing.

He said it was never learned prior to the plea that Rousonelos suffered from depression. And he said he has uncovered evidence Rousonelos might have been abused by her husband.

"I've never seen a court file, especially in a homicide case, so devoid of any information whatsoever," Trevena told Farnell.

"If this court is made aware of additional facts, this court may change its mind and offer a different sentence," Trevena said.

The judge asked, "What if I find that I made a mistake and decide that 12 years was not enough?"

Trevena said he didn't think his client could legally receive a greater sentence. But Farnell questioned whether she could give Rousonelos a lesser sentence absent a plea withdrawal.

Trevena said his client would consider withdrawing her plea if Farnell refuses to grant her a lesser sentence next month.

McCabe said afterward: "I don't think he or his client have the courage to do so."

On June 16, police said, Rousonelos retrieved a knife from her kitchen and stabbed her 42-year-old husband near the groin after an argument about an affair he had with a parishioner at the St. Petersburg church he pastored, Faith Assembly of God.

The wound punctured his femoral artery and he soon bled to death.