Where can the Couey trial go?

A judge gives up on finding an unbiased jury in Lake County for the sensational murder case.

Published July 14, 2006

TAVARES - The search for a jury in the John Couey trial will start over in a new location now that a judge has decided that Lake County residents know too much about the case to render an unbiased verdict.

Citrus County Circuit Judge Ric Howard abruptly canceled jury selection - throwing out the entire pool of jurors on Thursday as word of Couey's confession in the grisly kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford tainted the remaining candidates.

Jessica's disappearance from her Homosassa home last year made local, state and national headlines. Because of the publicity, the judge didn't even try seating a jury in Citrus. And after 3 days here, he gave up on Lake County.

Still, legal experts think the court will find a place in Florida with unbiased jurors.

"It's a difficult and painful process," said Charlie Rose at the Stetson University College of Law. "That's part of living in a democracy. It's ugly, but it gets done."

A frustrated Howard said the case would definitely move beyond the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Citrus, Lake, Marion, Hernando and Sumter counties.

State Attorney Brad King suggested leaving the entire Tampa and Orlando media markets.

"Obviously you want to try to hold the trial outside of the media area that's represented here," King said. "That was the original reason for moving it to Lake, because the Lake regional media is different than Citrus County's regional media."

King said the decision delays the trial at least until September or October, but he's confident the court will find a suitable site.

"I expect that there are places in Florida where people have not heard quite as much about this case as they have right here in the 5th Circuit," he said.

State law prohibits the trial from being held outside the state.

Couey's defense team declined to comment. During jury selection, it asked three times for a venue change but was denied each time.

Earlier this year, Howard decided to move jury selection to this small town near Orlando. The local clerk summoned more than 3,500 prospective jurors, the largest pool in Lake County history.

The plan was to choose the jury in Lake, then move the actual trial to Citrus.

But it became evident as the attorneys questioned jury candidates that most knew about the case. Couey's confession also proved to be a major problem. The judge deemed it inadmissible because Couey wasn't provided a lawyer. More than half the potential jurors had heard about the confession and were immediately dismissed.

Lawyers narrowed the jury pool as best they could, and there was hope that a panel could be in place by the end of the week.

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.

Just before noon Thursday, the judge called off the proceedings. "I thank the good people of Lake County for their services," he said before excusing all of the potential jurors.

Some cheered in response. "We were becoming a prisoner," said jury candidate Tim Bucher. "Everyone was extremely frustrated."

Others were relieved to get excused. A 19-year-old Clermont man said he was verbally threatened at a grocery store by someone who knew he was a potential juror. He would not go into specifics.

Howard didn't fault the media, but said it's a tough balance between "the right of the accused to have a fair, impartial panel to decide his case and that sometimes butts up against the First Amendment rights of the media to cover the matter."

In coming weeks, court officials said the judge and attorneys will meet to discuss the next step.

"They're either going to have to move it (jury selection) to a large population or out in the middle of nowhere," Stetson's Rose said.

But given today's 24-hour news environment, sheltered rural enclaves may be hard to find. Jury selection might go better in urban areas with a diverse population.

"Miami-Dade would probably be the best shot," Largo defense attorney John Trevena said. "In a large metropolitan area you're likely to have a larger pool that hasn't followed cases outside the community."

Such a move could raise other issues. In choosing a new location for a case, the state says the court should give priority to places that resemble the original county's demographic composition.

With Couey's trial, this might not be possible, said Bob Dekle, a former assistant state attorney who prosecuted serial killer Ted Bundy.

"I don't know that such a place exists," he said, "but all you need is 12 people who can be fair."

Dekle said multiple changes of venue for tainted jury pools are uncommon, but not unprecedented.

Throughout his career as a prosecutor in Florida, he has encountered the situation twice: In the 1980 Bundy trial that he prosecuted and a kidnapping and murder case in the early 1990s.

The effect of moving the case again is debatable.

Trevena said Thursday's development was a victory for the defense. "It gives them more time to prepare and it's an obstacle to the prosecution," he said. "The more you drag it out, it wears on the prosecution and it wears on the judge."

But other experts disagreed, saying Couey's defense team still faces an uphill battle.

"A victory for the defense," Rose said, "would be a juror getting on the jury who had heard about the confession, but didn't remember until after the trial."

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