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The victim's mother lectures the killer, sentenced to life // "You took that away'

Published Jun. 20, 2006

It took nearly 24 years, but on Tuesday, Carol Hutto's family finally got the chance to address her killer.

Before a hushed courtroom, the mother of the 16-year-old Largo girl turned from the podium, stared at her former neighbor and sternly forced him to relive the events of that week in 1976.

"Carol trusted you, James Kuenn," Norma Hutto said. "James Kuenn, you took the trust Carol gave you and you used it for your depraved wants."

There was more.

"You went to Carol's funeral and cold-heartedly acted like you were upset, like you were her friend," Norma Hutto said. "I hope and pray to God you never leave prison. You do not deserve a second chance at living. You didn't give that to my daughter."

Moments later, Kuenn, 40, who for nearly 22 years denied any involvement in Hutto's 1976 murder, was sentenced to life in prison.

Hutto's family and friends told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Philip Federico no sentence _ not even death _ would offset the pain they've endured from years of wondering who murdered Carol and whether the killer would ever be brought to justice.

Since the case was reopened in 1994, members of the Hutto family have kept their feelings about the case to themselves. After years of public silence, Hutto's mother and sister read emotional victim impact statements before Federico handed down the sentence.

First was Mrs. Hutto, a petite woman with curly, brown hair, who had big dreams for her youngest daughter.

She said she looked forward to the day Carol would graduate from Largo High School. She imagined watching the 16-year-old put on a beautiful white dress and walking down the aisle to begin a new life with her husband and, perhaps, start a family.

"You took that away from her, James Kuenn," she said, coldly staring into the eyes of her daughter's killer.

Mrs. Hutto recalled how Kuenn used to visit her daughter at the family's concrete-and-stucco home on Corvette Drive. Carol had a crush on Kuenn, a fellow junior at Largo High who lived a block away. Mrs. Hutto remembered how Kuenn called her home on the night of Dec. 13, 1976 and asked to speak to Carol.

Shortly after the telephone call, Carol left the house, never to be seen alive by her parents again.

That night, Carol met Kuenn at a house under construction at 418 Imperial Drive, a block from the Hutto home. Kuenn hit her in the head with a 2-by-4 and dumped her unconscious body at the bottom of a cold, shallow pond. The county's medical examiner determined Hutto drowned.

Kuenn, who went on to a career as a U.S. Navy petty officer aboard a submarine in Groton, Conn., confessed to the crime in 1998, calling Hutto's death an accident. The two were kissing in the vacant house and Kuenn wanted to have sex, he told investigators. Hutto refused, yelling into the foggy night air. To quiet her screams, Kuenn said he hit the young woman with the 2-by-4.

Thinking she was dead, Kuenn choked Hutto to leave marks on her neck, hoping to make investigators think the murderer was a stranger, according to trial testimony. He then dumped her body in the pond.

Prosecutors sought a first-degree murder conviction. Kuenn's lawyers conceded their client bore some responsibility for the crime. But a more reasonable verdict, they believed, was manslaughter or perhaps third-degree murder.

The jury deliberated 22 minutes last Wednesday before finding Kuenn guilty of first-degree murder. One of Kuenn's attorneys, Scott McCluskey, said he would appeal the verdict, arguing his client's rights were violated because he did not have a lawyer present during the 1998 interrogation.

Under U.S. Navy guidelines, an enlisted officer convicted of a crime is usually dishonorably discharged if and when that person finishes their sentence, a Navy spokesman said Tuesday.

Kuenn might taste freedom again. Because the crime took place in 1976, Judge Federico applied the state statutes that were in effect that year, which makes a person convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole in 25 years.

Kuenn declined to speak at the sentencing. The defendant's father, Donald, left the courtroom after sentencing and couldn't be reached later Tuesday. His wife, Ora, also could not be reached.

Carol's sister, Pamela Hutto-Ferguson, also addressed the court.

"My innocence was lost the day my baby sister was taken away from us," her sister said, bursting into sobs.

Hutto-Ferguson, too, had dreams of a future with her sister. The older sister envisioned Carol working with children, possibly as a teacher. She thought about the two of them getting together and having long chats.

"We will never be able to sit down and talk to each other," she said.

For creating the family's nightmare, Hutto-Ferguson said she hopes Kuenn never leaves a prison cell until his death.

"Evil cannot be destroyed, but it can be caged," she said.