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Couey's confession won't get to jurors

Detectives didn't honor John Couey's request for an attorney, so prosecutors can't use his confession in the slaying of Jessica Lunsford, a judge rules.

By JOHN FRANK
Published July 1, 2006


INVERNESS - Jurors will not hear John Couey's confession in the Jessica Lunsford case after a judge ruled Friday that investigators infringed on Couey's right to an attorney.

Prosecutors said the judge's rare move will hamper - but not cripple - their case against Couey, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder in the slaying of the 9-year-old Homosassa girl.

Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard said prosecutors can still present physical evidence gathered after the confession, including evidence related to Jessica's body that the defense wanted blocked.

The judge also ruled prosecutors can use incriminating statements Couey gave to detectives and a jail guard months after his arrest and initial interrogation.

Howard said investigators violated Couey's rights when they did not honor his request for an attorney.

"It is not a mere technicality, it is a material and profound violation of one of the most bedrock principles of criminal law," Howard said.

Prosecutors can recover from the judge's decision, said J. Larry Hart, a former federal prosecutor who practices criminal law in New Port Richey.

"The prosecution clearly suffered a blow, but they have not had the legs knocked out from under their case," Hart said.

Friday's much-anticipated rulings will guide the two sides as they prepare for Couey's July 10 trial. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. The jury will come from Lake County because the case has received so much local publicity, but the trial will be held in Inverness.

During the hearing, Couey, 47, wore shackles and a jail-issue red jumpsuit. He squirmed at the defense table but did not address the court.

The convicted sex offender lived within eyesight of the mobile home Jessica shared with her father, Mark Lunsford, and her paternal grandparents.

Jessica disappeared the night of Feb. 23, 2005. A huge search ensued and the case attracted national attention.

Investigators focused on Couey after he couldn't be found at his registered address. They later learned he was living near the Lunsfords and that he had left the state soon after Jessica disappeared.

Couey was arrested on March 17, 2005, in Augusta, Ga. During interrogations, he asked two Citrus County sheriff's detectives for a lawyer a half-dozen times, but investigators continued to question him about taking a lie detector test and his criminal past.

The next day Couey confessed when he was confronted with the results of the polygraph.

Prosecutors said Couey was read his Miranda rights multiple times while in Georgia, but he spoke freely with investigators.

The requests for legal representation were ambiguous, the state said. The investigators said they thought Couey wanted a lawyer strictly to discuss taking a lie detector test. The judge disagreed.

In the confession, Couey told detectives that he buried Jessica in a shallow grave next to the mobile home where he was living.

Couey's defense team didn't just want the confession suppressed; it also wanted the judge to throw out evidence collected after the interrogation.

The defense said the evidence, especially the body, was "fruit of the poisonous tree" because it was derived from the illegally obtained confession.

But Howard ruled that detectives inevitably would have discovered her body because Jessica's blood was found on a mattress in Couey's room. Also, detectives noticed freshly turned soil behind the mobile home.

"Any time you lose evidence, obviously it reduces the amount of evidence you have and the strength of your case," said Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney. He said the state will not appeal.

Like Ridgway, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said he didn't think the ruling would doom the case.

"Yes, we would have liked to have the confession go in, but ... that was not what I would say is the rock part of this case," Dawsy said before a bank of television cameras and reporters. "I've got enough evidence to put John Couey to death."

Dawsy also defended his detectives, saying that they were still under the impression that Jessica was alive at the time.

"They did not do anything deliberatively or maliciously to violate John Couey's rights," he said.

Jessica's father, Mark, was in Ohio continuing his nationwide crusade for tougher sexual predator laws.

"It doesn't matter - guilty is guilty and innocent is innocent, and we know what the system is going to do," he said in a phone interview.

Ridgway would not discuss the prosecution's strategy, but suggested that Couey's jailhouse admissions will be significant.

On Oct. 11, 2005, Couey told detectives that he didn't know why he killed Jessica and that he was not a violent man. On March 5, he told a jail guard: "I didn't mean to do what I did. I didn't mean to kill her."

The judge noted that, unlike the tainted statements, these remarks from Couey didn't come in response to police questioning.

Defense attorneys not connected to the case said Couey's jailhouse statements could be damaging.

"The point is to argue that there was someone else present, that this could have been done by another individual, to create reasonable doubt," said John Trevena of Largo. "But given those statements from Couey, that's going to be difficult."

At the end of the hearing, Ridgway said that at trial he would like to offer evidence of a crime Couey committed in 1978.

Couey burglarized a Crystal River home, entered the bedroom of a girl, placed his hand over her mouth and kissed her.

Stetson University law professor Charles Rose said the prosecution is better off without the confession because the issue would provide the defense with ample ground for an appeal.

The defense is handcuffed, he said. Only if the judge threw out the discovery of Jessica's body would it have a chance at acquittal.

"All they have done," he said, "is change the path the prosecutor has to walk."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 352 860-7312.

To read the judge's full ruling, read previous coverage and to hear John Couey's graphic depiction of the crime go to links.tampabay.com.

THE EVIDENCE

OUT

* Couey's confession.

IN

* Oct. 11 remarks at the Citrus County jail. Couey told detectives that he didn't know why he killed Jessica and that he was not a violent man.* March 5 remarks at the jail: "I didn't mean to do what I did, I didn't mean to kill her," Couey told a guard.* Jessica's body. The judge says investigators would have discovered the grave outside Couey's mobile home even without his tainted confession.* DNA evidence. Blood stain on Couey's mattress matched Jessica.

MAYBE

* Prosecutors want the jury to know about 1978 case where Couey burglarized a Citrus home, entered the bedroom of a girl, placed his hand over her mouth and kissed her.

[Last modified July 10, 2006, 12:22:55]


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