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As repugnant a case as Couey's, it demands trial be faultless

By SUE CARLTON
Published July 10, 2006


Imagine being a cop that day back in 2005, looking into the face of a man suspected of knowing something about a little girl who disappeared.

Imagine that you believed, as the sheriff later said his detectives did, that Jessica Lunsford might still be alive somewhere.

Eight times in less than a minute, John Couey asked the two Citrus County detectives for a lawyer.

He didn't get one.

The next day he confessed, said he'd buried 9-year-old Jessica in a shallow grave next to the Homosassa mobile home where he lived not far from the Lunsfords.

Those words out of Couey's mouth could have been a courtroom clincher, a confession for his death penalty trial.

As anyone who has seen a single episode of Law & Order would know, those words were also spoken after a clear violation of his constitutional rights.

Some people, given all we have seen and read since Jessica disappeared last year, might think Couey doesn't deserve much in the way of rights.

But the rules that govern the justice system, what police and lawyers and judges can and cannot do, are all that hold it together. We have an absolute duty to play by those rules, even with the most loathsome of suspects. Especially with the most loathsome of suspects. It's easy enough to be fair to misdemeanor types.

The police were flat wrong here. A very small part of me understands the detectives pushing forward that day if they really thought they had a chance of finding her. But the end, in the end, can't justify the means.

Good thing a clear-minded judge came along to throw that confession out.

Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard didn't even waffle when he ruled: "Such a police misconduct is not a mere technicality. A technicality is signing an order in the wrong color ink," he said. "This is a material and a profound violation of one of the most bedrock principles of criminal law."

In terms of what prosecutors have left to show the jury, this was a rabbit punch, not a knockout.

They still have other incriminating statements Couey made to investigators and a jail guard. (This is better for the prosecution than if he'd whispered it to a fellow inmate. Juries don't much care for jailhouse snitches, the very embodiment of something to gain.)

More significantly, prosecutors have the discovery of Jessica's body outside the mobile home. They have her DNA from a bloodstain on his mattress.

Judge Howard made another important ruling last week. In 1978, Couey was accused of sneaking into a house, putting his hand over the mouth of a 12-year-old girl in her bedroom and kissing her.

Prosecutors hoped jurors would hear this and see a pattern that led to Jessica.

But rules on this kind of evidence are strict. Saying an accused robber committed a robbery before is not enough. They had better be remarkably similar: Both times, he used a water pistol and spoke Portuguese.

The judge noted the older case had no allegations of molestation and ruled it out.

Jury selection begins this morning for Couey on charges of kidnapping, sexual battery and murder. Around here we feel so strongly about what happened to Jessica - we know so much about it - that jurors will be picked in another county and brought back to Inverness for the trial. We expect to see reporters from far and wide.

Maybe you think the judge's pretrial decisions took chinks out of a case against a man accused of the worst kind of savagery.

Truth is, he protected the case.

If Couey is convicted and sentenced to death, the Florida Supreme Court will look for errors in the trial, to make sure everything was done right before the most absolute punishment can be carried out.

The justices would not have needed a magnifying glass to find the land mine that was Couey's confession. And they could have disagreed with letting a jury hear about a case from nearly 30 years ago.

That could have meant a new trial for John Couey.

Try this case twice? Let's not.

Mistakes shouldn't mean that one day we'll have to look for justice for Jessica Lunsford all over again.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com.