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Judge: Couey confession out

The judge will allow evidence investigators collected after the confession involving the kidnapping and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

Published June 30, 2006

[Times photo: Will Vragovic]
John Couey, right, listens as Circuit Judge Ric Howard summarizes his decision to suppress Couey's confession but to allow physical evidence during a hearing Friday in the Citrus County Courthouse in Inverness. Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter is seated beside Couey.

A Citrus County judge ruled this morning that John Couey’s confession will not be allowed as evidence in  Couey’s upcoming trial. However, the evidence that investigators collected after his confession -- most notably the recovery of Jessica Lunsford's body -- will be allowed as evidence. Moreover,  the judge said that incriminating statements Couey made to investigators and, on another occasion, to a jail guard will be allowed as evidence.

Couey, 47, is accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing 9-year-old Jessica of Homosassa last year. The trial is scheduled to begin July 10.

The defense noted that Couey asked for  but was not provided  a lawyer multiple times during an interview with investigators in Georgia in March 2005. As a result, they argue, his confession was unlawfully obtained and should be excluded as evidence. Likewise, all evidence obtained after Couey’s statements is similarly tainted and ought not be used against Couey, the Public Defender’s Office argued.

But prosecutors said Couey’s requests,  made during discussion of a possible polygraph examination,  were ambiguous. They also noted that Couey had been advised of his rights numerous times before and after his request for a lawyer, and that he waived those rights at every turn.

The state further argued that evidence collected after Couey made his incriminating statements — namely, the discovery of Jessica’s body, which was buried outside the mobile home where Couey had been living — would have been inevitably discovered anyway, since investigators were learning at that point that the victim’s blood was found on a mattress inside Couey’s room.

 The judge agreed with the defense concerning the statements in Georgia but agreed with prosecutors concerning the inevitable discovery of that evidence.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard said Citrus sheriff's investigators committed a "profound violation" of Couey's rights when they didn't allow for legal representation during the Georgia interview.  "They chose to ignore" Couey's request, he said.

Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said the state will not appeal the judge's ruling concerning the confession. 

As for the other incriminating statements, Howard noted that Couey made them on his own and not in response to questioning.
Those statements were made at the Citrus County jail well after Couey had been arrested and advised of his rights, the judge said.
The most recent statements were made on March 5, when a jail guard said Couey told him "I didn’t mean to kill her."

After the hearing, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy defended the investigators whose work the judge had criticized. The sheriff said the investigators didn’t even know whether Jessica was alive at that point.

Dawsy further said that the prosecution doesn’t need Couey’s confession to win this case. He said the evidence is rock solid and he expects a conviction and death sentence.

Jessica went missing in late February 2005, prompting a massive search and attracting national attention. The Sheriff’s Office later identified Couey, a convicted sex offender, as a “person of interest” in the case.

Investigators determined that Couey was living in a mobile home within eyesight of Jessica’s home. That was not the address Couey had registered with authorities. People who lived with him in the mobile home said he had left for Georgia.

Citrus sheriff’s detectives Scott Grace and Gary Atchison interviewed Couey at length in Augusta, Ga. They said Couey’s mention of a lawyer was confusing; they thought it just concerned a lie detector test.

[Last modified June 30, 2006, 12:47:19]

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