tampabay.com

Delay leaves many in limbo

After Circuit Judge Ric Howard halts the proceedings, new questions surface about the murder trial: Will it still be held in Citrus? And exactly when will it resume?

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published July 14, 2006


For potential jurors in Lake County, Circuit Judge Ric Howard's decision to postpone John Couey's trial was a welcome reprieve from a grueling process.

For Inverness officials who have been gearing up for weeks for the media attention surrounding the case, the ruling leaves the city in limbo.

And for the Lunsford family and many in the tight-knit Homosassa community, it means justice for Jessica may be months away.

The original plan was to select a jury in Lake and then move the proceedings to the Citrus County Courthouse.

It was unclear Thursday whether the trial would still be held in Citrus. But State Attorney Brad King said jury selection will take place far from the Tampa and Orlando media markets, and that the trial could be delayed until September or October.

"We have to wait and see. ... Everything's up for grabs," court operations manager John Sullivan said. "It won't be decided unilaterally. The judge will discuss it with the defense attorney as well as the state attorney."

The logistics of moving the trial to another county would be complicated - and costly.

"You don't budget for those things. You just spend the money," Sullivan said. "It's just one of those things, you have to do it. It's part of living in America."

Sullivan attended the jury selection, which lasted 3 days in Lake County before Howard called it off. At least five bailiffs, two volunteer bailiffs, two clerks, the judge and a court reporter also came over from Citrus.

"As we went forward, I was less surprised," Sullivan said of Howard's decision to halt the trial. "There's an awful lot of media out there. It was just difficult to overcome."

Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said city officials have been preparing for the trial for weeks.

"We met with every employee and talked about how to answer the phones, what to do, what to say," he said. "We modified work schedules internally to staff the reception area (at the front of City Hall). There's a heightened alert with all of us."

It will be difficult, he said, to shift back to normal. But business as usual should be possible by Monday.

"If it moves, it moves," he said. "And if it's here, we've already got the plans in place. We'll just start them up again."

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said he was anxious to find out a new trial date.

"I believe everyone here at the Sheriff's Office was disheartened by the news that the trial wouldn't be going off as planned," Dawsy said in a written statement Thursday. "However, I'm in full agreement with State Attorney Brad King that the delay will in no way hinder the successful prosecution of this case."

At the post office in Old Homosassa on Thursday afternoon, talk of the trial was on the tip of just about everyone's tongue. Diane Toto, president of the Homosassa Civic Club, went there to mail a letter. That's when she heard about the delay in the trial.

"I just don't believe it," she said. "What are they doing wasting all that time? They should just convict him. ... I just can't understand what's taking so long. They're so careful with this guy. He's taking up valuable jail space."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.