tampabay.com

Couey's words trip up jury selection process

His confession continues to be a problem in selecting a jury, though not everyone who knows about it is dismissed.

By JOHN FRANK
Published July 12, 2006


TAVARES — Opening statements in the trial in the Jessica Lunsford slaying won’t come until Friday at the earliest, as lawyers struggle to find an unbiased jury.


Day 2 of jury selection in this closely watched case proved more problematic than Day 1. Nearly seven out of every 10  prospective jurors questioned Tuesday were dismissed because they knew about John Couey’s confession, held prejudice toward him or claimed a hardship.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard and the attorneys will try to find more this morning.

Again, the snag is the confession.

Police said Couey, 47, admitted kidnapping, raping and murdering the 9-year-old Homosassa girl, but a judge recently barred prosecutors from using it in the trial because Couey was denied legal counsel. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Of the 62 candidates questioned by the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys Tuesday, 41 were sent home; 23 of those rejected knew about the confession.

“I know his confession was thrown out; I know that he’s guilty,” said one candidate who was dismissed in less than 15 seconds.

Even those who didn’t know about the confession had opinions about the case.

“You’d have to be living under a rock not to hear” about this case, another candidate said. “I don’t think I’d be fair. I’ve got my mind made up.”

Still, the judge allowed one potential juror — a male park ranger who coordinates children’s activities — to remain, even though the man knew about the confession.

He was one of 21 who advanced to a second round of questioning scheduled for Thursday. They join 20 other jury prospects identified on the first day of the selection process.

Attorneys in the trial are looking for a final group of 60 to 70 jurors from whom to pick the 12-member panel and four alternates.

Another issue that arose Tuesday was the presence of the news media.

Three jurors were sent home after they overheard a Tampa Tribune reporter discussing the case on a cell phone in the courthouse hallway. He spoke on speakerphone, discussing testimony that jurors wouldn’t hear during trial.

“The press has a right to be here, and the press has a right to report what they see,” said Peter Magrino, assistant state attorney. “It’s unfortunate that a member of the press can create such an issue concerning this, (even though) it was inadvertent.”

Howard told reporters to be mindful of potential jurors nearby and told them not to go near the jury’s assembly room.

“We don’t want to make this adversarial at all, and I don’t want it to be that way,” Howard said. “We have gone to extraordinary lengths in bringing the case over here … and I’m not going to allow it to be sabotaged.”


Earlier in the day, the judge reprimanded the Ocala Star-Banner — though he didn’t name the newspaper — for printing the name of a jury candidate who progressed to the second round.

Despite the eight arduous hours of jury selection, some moments of color managed to lighten the proceedings.

A schoolteacher had an interesting explanation for why she would face an undue hardship if she were away from home for the three-week trial: Her husband could be leaving soon to take a rhino back to Africa.


Too good to be true? Nope — her husband works at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in nearby Orlando.


Still, the judge said it wasn’t enough to let her off the hook.


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