tampabay.com

Detective defends questioning of Couey

He says he wasn't "crystal clear" about what Couey meant when he said he wanted to consult a lawyer.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published September 10, 2005


INVERNESS - On his final day at work before leaving for Iraq, Citrus County sheriff's Detective Scott Grace defended himself and his colleague, Detective Gary Atchison, from accusations by John Couey's defense attorney that the investigators violated Couey's rights.

"If (Couey) said he did not want to talk to us and he wanted to talk to a lawyer, then we would get him a lawyer or we would not talk to him," Grace said.

During a March 17 interview with the two men, Couey asked to consult an attorney. But instead of providing him counsel, the detectives proceeded to question him about Jessica Lunsford's disappearance. Why?

Couey wanted to talk with an attorney about whether to take a polygraph test, not about whether to talk with investigators about Jessica's disappearance, Grace testified.

Questions about whether detectives violated Couey's rights surfaced in the spring after prosecutors released transcripts of Couey's statements to investigators. Since then, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy has stood by the detectives, promising the case against Couey is "rock solid" and saying little else on the matter.

Legal experts have said the detectives' actions could put Couey's confession in jeopardy. Also of concern to prosecutors are untaped segments of the interviews, including Couey's first admission of guilt and his agreement to take the polygraph.

"It's a concern in this case as it is in any case, but certainly given Detectives Grace and Atchison and what they did in the case and the way they did it. ... I'm not overly concerned about their potential credibility issues," said Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino.

Grace's testimony came out months before Couey's preliminary February trial date because the detective has resigned from the Sheriff's Office to work for the private contracting company Halliburton in Kuwait and Iraq. Prosecutors won a legal battle to allow Grace to give a taped deposition and testimony before going abroad.

Couey, 47, is accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jessica. He has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial at the Citrus County Jail. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

Grace spoke with attorneys for almost two hours Tuesday in assistant public defender Daniel M. Lewan's office. A transcript of the proceeding was later made available to the public in Couey's court file.

Grace first detailed his involvement in the case, which began shortly after Jessica disappeared from her family's Homosassa home Feb. 24.

At first Grace's investigation focused on Jessica's father, Mark, 42, and her grandfather, Archie, 72. Both men had been previously accused of crimes in other states, and investigators found pornography on the computer in the Lunsford home, Grace said.

When the family was cleared of involvement, Grace learned of Couey, a registered sex offender believed to have lived at a home in sight of Jessica's house.

Grace first spoke to Couey on St. Patrick's Day in a small, windowless room at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office in Georgia.

Grace and Atchison pretended to empathize and be understanding of Couey during the interview, he said. They lied to him by telling him blood was found in his bedroom, even though they'd never been inside his mobile home.

When Couey repeated he didn't know anything about Jessica's whereabouts, Grace asked if Couey would be willing to take a polygraph test.

Couey then said he wanted to consult a lawyer. "(Couey) meant that if we were to give him a lie detector test he would want an attorney. ... It was not crystal clear as to exactly what he was stating to me," Grace testified.

"Okay. You weren't crystal clear?" Lewan asked.

"No," Grace replied.

Grace then said Couey agreed to the polygraph at the end of the interview. The tape recorder wasn't on at the time, he said.

The next morning, Couey went before a judge for a first appearance hearing and could have asked for an attorney, Grace said.

Couey then took the polygraph and told Grace he'd killed Jessica, Grace said.

Grace is expected to be abroad for a year. He told investigators he hoped to return to testify at the trial, but that he could not be certain he'd be able to attend.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 860-7312 or vansickle@sptimes.com