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Rights violation is not a technicality

By Times editorial
Published July 2, 2006

A circuit judge's ruling Friday that John Couey's confession cannot be used at his upcoming trial comes as no surprise. It has been clear for months that detectives from the Citrus County Sheriff's Office violated the constitutional rights of the man charged with abducting and killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. Whether Sheriff Jeff Dawsy's claims that the case against Couey remains solid will be up to a jury to decide, but the failure of his detectives to honor Couey's request for a lawyer was a serious violation of the convicted sex offender's constitutional rights.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard had no choice but to throw out Couey's confession. A transcript of the March 2005 interrogation in Augusta, Ga., shows that Couey asked for a lawyer when he was asked to take a polygraph test. The judge noted that Citrus investigators "chose to ignore" a request that was made eight times in 46 seconds. Couey did not get legal representation until after he had confessed to killing Jessica and been brought back to Citrus.

"Such a police misconduct is not a mere technicality," the judge said Friday. "A technicality is signing an order in the wrong color ink. This is a material and a profound violation of one of the most bedrock principles of criminal law."

Well said.

Prosecutors argued that Couey had previously waived his constitutional right to a lawyer a number of times. That doesn't matter. The fact is he finally did ask for one, and investigators should have stopped at that point. The sheriff reminded everyone Friday that at the time, investigators did not know whether Jessica might still be alive. While the sense of urgency to learn her whereabouts is understandable, it cannot override the fundamental right to legal representation.

Couey's confession was not the only evidence against him. Howard ruled that prosecutors can still use the discovery of Jessica's body buried outside the mobile home where Couey had been living, as well as a bloody mattress from the mobile home that tested positive for Jessica's DNA. Other incriminating statements he made later to investigators and a jail guard also can be used during the trial later this month. But the poor judgment of the investigators, regardless of their good intentions, has made the prosecutors' job more difficult.

There is a legal, ethical and moral responsibility for law enforcement to honor requests for legal representation. Dawsy told reporters his advice to criminal suspects who don't want to speak is to ask for a lawyer and stop talking. And when that happens, the sheriff should have added, his investigators should stop asking questions.

[Last modified July 1, 2006, 22:40:54]

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