Jury won't hear of Couey's past crimes

Prosecutors can't mention a 1978 incident in which a man broke into a girl's room, covered her mouth and kissed her. John Couey was accused but not charged in that case.

Published July 7, 2006

INVERNESS - Dealing the second blow in a week to prosecutors' case against John Couey, a judge ruled Thursday that the sex offender's criminal past can't be used against him at trial.

As part of their effort to build a case against Couey in the kidnapping, sexual assault and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, prosecutors wanted to tell the jury about a 1978 incident in which Couey was accused of burglarizing a Crystal River home, entering a girl's bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her.

The 12-year-old girl managed to escape without harm and authorities say her attacker fled. Couey, who was 19 at the time, was later arrested but never charged in the case because he pleaded guilty to violating probation instead. A judge sentenced him to a 10-year prison term.

Prosecutors noted similarities between that case and the abduction of Jessica. They said both incidents involved a late-night home break-in where a window screen was cut. Also, both young victims were targeted ahead of time, said Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney.

But Circuit Judge Ric Howard agreed with Couey's defense lawyer, who argued that the cases didn't meet the strict legal standard of being "strikingly similar or unique to the defendant."

Howard said the 1978 incident wasn't similar enough, most notably because there were no allegations of child molestation in the older case.

If Howard had allowed the case to be mentioned at trial, it likely would have led to a delay. Assistant Public Defender Daniel Lewan said he would have needed more time to research the 28-year-old case.

Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday in Lake County. The rest of the proceedings will be in Inverness. The state is seeking the death penalty.

After the pretrial hearing Thursday, prosecutors were not deterred by the judge's decision. "I have to go with what I've got," Ridgway said.

At first, Ridgway said he never intended to tell jurors about the 1978 case. But when Howard threw out Couey's confession last week on the grounds that he was denied the right to an attorney, he changed his mind.

Both rulings hurt the prosecution's case, but Ridgway and Sheriff Jeff Dawsy are confident they have enough evidence to convict Couey.

Ridgway said he wouldn't try to present jurors with information about a 1991 incident in Kissimmee, where Couey was charged with exposing himself and fondling himself in front of a 5-year-old girl because the circumstances weren't similar enough to Jessica's case. In the 1991 incident, Couey was convicted and listed as a sex offender.

In a separate motion this week, prosecutors filed paperwork listing six aggravating circumstances they believe warrant the death penalty if Couey is found guilty.

They are:

- A previous conviction for capital felony or felony involving violence against the person.

- Commission of a felony in the commission of sexual battery.

- The crime was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.

- The crime was committed for the purpose of avoiding arrest.

- The murder was committed in a cold, calculated and premeditated manner.

- The victim was younger than 12.

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