In hopes of getting a more lenient punishment, Sara Jane Atwood pleaded guilty at her Monday court hearing to her role in the murder of James Thomas Roman, the Lecanto man who helped raise her.
Atwood’s change of plea to an amended charge of second-degree murder spares the 25-year-old Inverness woman from possibly having to serve a mandatory life sentence had she stood trial next week and was convicted on her original charge of premeditated murder.
Atwood also pleaded guilty to her second charge, a life-felony count of armed burglary.
Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard scheduled Atwood’s sentencing for Sept. 11, with the anticipation that date could change.
At Atwood's sentencing, Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino will recommend a prison term of up to life that’s based on how Atwood fulfills her plea agreement's obligations, negotiated by Magrino and Atwood’s attorney, Charles Vaughn.
Those terms include staying free of additional charges and providing truthful testimony about Roman’s April 30, 2017, slaying.
That means Atwood, if called to do so, must testify in the trial of her alleged accomplice, 34-year-old Christopher Eugene Smith, of Dunnellon, who faces the death penalty for his alleged involvement in Roman’s death.
Prosecutors allege Smith fatally strangled 73-year-old Roman while he and Atwood burglarized Roman’s home in the 5200 block of West Cardamon Place.
Smith’s next court appearance is set for Sept. 25, when Smith is expected to either schedule a trial date or change his not-guilty plea to charges of first-degree murder and armed burglary.
If Atwood abides by Magrino’s stipulations, she and Vaughn can argue for a lesser punishment at her sentencing. If Atwood fails, Howard can order her to serve two life sentences.
Magrino alleges that Atwood, Smith and Atwood’s father talked about stealing from Roman, who cared for Atwood in her youth.
Smith and Atwood’s father knew each other from serving time in state prison, and are members of a criminal gang known as the Unforgiven, Magrino said.
Atwood and Smith rode a taxi to Roman’s house. Roman answered his door to Atwood, who told him she was having car troubles.
It’s alleged Smith then barged his way into Roman’s house and strangled the homeowner to death during a fight witnessed by Atwood, Magrino said.
Afterwards, Atwood and Smith stole jewelry and other items, including Roman’s Nissan pickup truck.
Citrus County Sheriff’s Office deputies discovered Roman’s body on May 2, 2017, after his truck was recovered at the end of pursuit between Smith and Florida Highway Patrol troopers in Marion County.
Smith was apprehended and was sentenced in September 2017 to a year and six months for charges connected with the pursuit.
Authorities later extradited Smith to Citrus County last September, when a Citrus County grand jury indicted him and Atwood.
Smith is also facing charges connected to May allegations he attacked a jail inmate and held a dozen others hostage with a homemade knife.
Magrino said Roman’s family agreed with the plea deal offered to Atwood.