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Task: find a fair jury for Couey

Starting today, attorneys must find jurors in Lake County who haven't made up their minds about the Jessica Lunsford case.

Published July 9, 2006

TAVARES — The much-anticipated trial of John Couey opens today  with the grueling, yet strategically important, process of jury selection in Lake County, near Orlando.

With a pool of jurors from the farthest reaches of the 5th Judicial Circuit, attorneys hope they can find a fair panel to weigh the high-profile case of the man accused of murdering Jessica Lunsford.

Couey, a 47-year-old sex offender, is charged with kidnapping, raping and murdering the 9-year-old Homosassa girl last year. He pleaded not guilty and the state is seeking the death penalty.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard issued 3,500 jury duty notices but has already excused 1,800 for statutory or hardship reasons, according to the Lake County Clerk of Court.

About 150 potential jurors each day will face questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys about their views on the death penalty and the Lunsford case.

Picking 12 jurors and four alternates is expected to take two to three days, but could easily go longer if attorneys can’t find people without preconceived notions about the case.

Tavares resident Rob Sellers thinks that might be difficult.

“It’s ignorant of them to think that we don’t know anything,” he said. “It’s not like we’re that far away.”

Complicating the matter is Couey’s confession, which was thrown out by the judge, who said Couey’s repeated requests for a lawyer should have been honored.

“Any juror who knows about (the confession) is tainted,” said Mike Seigel, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of Florida. “Once you know that, you really can’t erase it from your mind.”

Still, court officials are optimistic they can find a qualified group. They said it wasn’t a problem in the prominent trial of Jason Lee Wheeler, who recently was found guilty and sentenced to death for ambushing and killing a Lake County sheriff’s deputy.

In that trial, 1,400 summons were sent and a jury was selected in less than two days.
Howard moved the jury selection phase of Couey’s trial to Lake County because “extraordinary and pervasive publicity” surrounding the case in Citrus.

The actual trial — which is expected to draw the same intense national media attention as the investigation — still will be held at the Citrus County Courthouse in Inverness.

The jurors will travel to town and be isolated in an unnamed hotel where they can’t access the Internet, television or newspapers.

It’s not completely unheard of for a jury to come from a nearby county, but it’s not commonplace either. In selecting a new location, state laws say the court should give priority to areas that resemble the original county’s demographic composition.

Lake and Citrus counties are similar in population, but differ in many other respects. Lake is more than twice the size of Citrus, with a more racially diverse population and more native Floridians, according to the latest census figures available for the two areas.

Socially, the people of Lake County are significantly younger. The average age in Lake is 43, compared to 53 in Citrus, where more retirees live.

On the economic side, only one-tenth of Citrus residents earn more than $50,000 a year while one-third of the people in Lake make that amount.

Still, the proportion of those living below the poverty level is about the same.

The characteristics of the jury will factor into how the two sides present their cases — and both sides are looking for particular types of people.

The fact that it’s a death penalty case gives prosecutors an edge, experts say.

“It’s a jury that has already said they are willing to put people to death and they tend to be pro-law enforcement,” Seigel said.

A number of legal experts also believe the prosecution has a strong case even though the judge ruled that Couey’s detailed confession and past criminal history are not admissible in court.

They will rely on forensic evidence — specifically, blood found on Couey’s mattress — and two incriminating statements Couey gave to police and a prison guard long after his initial arrest.

In selecting a jury, the prosecution generally is looking for people who are analytical and technically minded, such as scientists or business people.

The defense needs jurors who could be swayed by a different version of events that don’t point to Couey as the killer.

Many questions remain about the night of the abduction and alternate theories could produce reasonable doubt in some minds.

This means more artistic or imaginative people who are free thinkers.

“Typically, they want those that might react emotionally,” Seigel said. “But then again, that could cut both ways, because they don’t want them to identify with the victim.”

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at or (352) 860-7312.

[Last modified July 9, 2006, 23:20:14]

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