Remember Jessica when media hits high tide

By Times editorial
Published June 20, 2006

Inverness has had its 15 minutes of national fame before, from high-profile courtroom battles to the now-infamous Cooter festival episode. But nothing to date can prepare the Citrus County seat for the wave looming over the horizon.

This just in: The national media circus is coming to town. And all of us had better be ready.

When the trial of John Couey convenes at the courthouse next month, media stars from around the country will pour into town.

The size of this tsunami became clear Monday afternoon at a meeting called by courthouse officials to discuss with the media the ground rules for the gavel-to-gavel coverage. Nearly 30 representatives attended, and they were just the leading edge of the tidal wave. The big egos and cable TV talking heads will come later.

The trial of Couey, accused of abducting, raping and killing Jessica Lunsford last year, is expected to take two or possibly three weeks. Without question, this will be the biggest event in the county's history, eclipsing the star-studded opening of the Ted Williams Museum, the court fight over Williams' remains, the funeral for Army pilot Aaron Weaver and our other forays into national exposure.

What does this mean for you?

Residents who need to visit a downtown office for routine government business - getting a license, paying a bill, etc. - should do so now.

Once the expected 10 to 12 big satellite TV trucks and oversized vans pack the downtown lots, parking will be even harder to come by than it is already.

Local officials have anticipated this deluge and have begun taking steps to keep government functioning. The County Commission, for instance, is moving its July meetings to Lecanto so that the commission chamber can be used for overflow seating for the media and the public, who will watch a live video feed of the trial.

City Manager Frank DiGiovanni has met with officials from the Sheriff's Office and the judiciary to work out logistics. The various constitutional officers downtown are also aware that life will be anything but normal during this period.

The business community is on notice as well.

Obviously, there is a shortage of hotel rooms for the visitors (including the out-of-town jurors).

Visiting journalists at Monday's meeting were already asking for recommendations on lodgings. Pickings are slim.

Local restaurants will be swamped with customers, and DiGiovanni said they have been asked to schedule extra staffers. He added that the city has chosen to postpone several road and landscape improvement projects until the trial is over so as not to interfere with traffic.

While the courthouse will remain open and officials are taking steps to ensure that government will still function (such as keeping the parking lot in front of the courthouse open for the public only), the residents of Citrus County must realize that they can expect to lose much of their quiet county seat for the duration of this trial.

The media representatives at Monday's meeting kept dropping names such as O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Sami Al-Arian and other defendants in major criminal trials. To this list, add John Couey.

What is different is that these other trials took place in major cities, not a small town such as Inverness. This will be a test, not entirely unlike a hurricane, of the government's preparedness.

Through it all, however, one point must not be forgotten. The aim of this entire exercise is to get justice for Jessica Lunsford and her long-suffering family.

The crowds and the wave of national media will come and go, and ordinary life will return to Inverness. But this is the only chance this child will have at eternal peace.

We owe it to Jessica to keep our focus in the glare of the television lights.