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Judge halts Couey trial

The trial likely won't resume until September or October.

By Times Staff
Published July 13, 2006

[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Citrus Circuit Judge Ric Howard.
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Audio: Listen to State Attorney Brad King discuss the judge's ruling and a dismissed juror comment on the case.
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TAVARES — In a surprise move, the judge in the John Couey case abruptly canceled jury selection today, saying an impartial panel couldn’t be selected in a timely fashion.

The trial will be rescheduled. When and where? Still undetermined.

"It's shocking, but if that's the way it goes, that's the way it goes," said Ruth Lunsford, paternal grandmother of Jessica Lunsford.

Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, could not be reached for comment. But his lawyer, Mark Gelman of Jacksonville, had this to say: "Mark seems very at peace with everything. There's not much he can do about it. He's going to put his faith in the system and know that Couey will be brought  to justice.

"He wants to get it over with, but he knows he'll get his conviction," Gelman said. 

The jury selection process started Monday and was slow going all along. Almost all potential jurors had seen and/or read media accounts of Couey, who is accused of killing 9-year-old Jessica  last year in Homosassa.

Still, the lawyers and judge had winnowed the pool to 58 prospective jurors. It looked like a jury would be seated and that opening statements would begin Monday.

But just before noon, Circuit Judge Ric Howard stopped the process in its tracks.

Jury selection was moved from Citrus County to Lake County because of intense media coverage of the case. But it turned out that awareness of the case was very strong in Lake, as well.

A jury probably could have been seated — eventually. But the judge also was running up against the clock: Some expert witnesses for the defense couldn’t travel to Florida and testify past a certain date, and the scheduling was starting to become unworkable.

“I thank the good people of Lake County for their services,” Howard said before excusing all of the potential jurors. Some cheered in response.

Lake County, like Citrus, is in the 5th Judicial Circuit. The circuit’s other member counties are Marion, Hernando and Sumter.The prosecution and the defense agreed early on that the jury should come from outside Citrus. So they gave Lake a try.

“We do try to keep an eye on the bottom line and on keeping our cases in our own circuit,” the judge said in court.But he said past and current media coverage — “though I don’t place any blame on the media” — left him no option but to give up.

After court was adjourned, State Attorney Brad King said that the trial likely won’t resume until at least September or October. King said the new location likely will be outside the Tampa Bay and Orlando media regions.

King also held open the possibility that the trial itself will not be held in Citrus.The original plan was to choose a Lake jury and then bring the jurors to Citrus.When Jessica Lunsford went missing in late February 2005, the community came together to find her, in hopes that she was still alive. Only weeks later, after Couey confessed, did people learn the worst: She had been kidnapped, raped and then buried alive outside a mobile home just 150 yards from her own house.

The judge said Couey’s confession was inadmissible. Still, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty and plan to rely on physical evidence and other incriminating statements Couey has made.

Couey, 47, has pleaded not guilty. He is a convicted sex offender with a long record of arrests and prison stays.

The defense team asked for a venue change on Tuesday, Wednesday and even earlier today, citing media coverage of the case and prospective jurors’ knowledge of the inadmissible confession and other case facts. Howard rejected all the requests, even the one this morning.

Then came the surprise announcement at 11:50 a.m.

This story includes information from Times Staff Writers Brendan Watson, John Frank and Elena Lesley.

[Last modified July 13, 2006, 14:28:48]

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