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The cost is never too high for justice

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published July 16, 2006


John Couey stands convicted in the court of public opinion of murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

But that's not where his murder trial will be held.

In days gone by, this case would have been wrapped up about as quickly as somebody could yell "get a rope!" His criminal history of drugs and sexual deviancy is well documented. And we've read and heard his confession, even if a jury never will.

But the hallmark of our justice system is that everyone is guaranteed a fair trial. How to get there for Couey is the question, considering how hard it was last week in Lake County to find people who hadn't been subjected to this nightmarish story.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard finally pulled the plug on the jury selection after days of frustration. He might have to drive up to the Panhandle, to St. John or Duval counties to find jurors who are similar demographically to those in Citrus. But people there don't live in a cave either.

Jessica's murder sent a chill across America. The details made us sick. Her pretty, smiling little face made us cry. People don't forget that.

"For 22 days people not only from Citrus County but throughout the state came to Homosassa Springs to assist in the search to try to locate her alive," assistant state attorney Pete Magrino, who is prosecuting Couey, said of the days following Jessica's abduction in February 2005. "All the while she was in a couple of garbage bags already in the ground. It's a heartbreaking set of circumstances."

The publicity of the initial search was just the beginning. Then came Couey's arrest in Georgia and the revelation that he was a convicted sex offender who lived a stone's throw from Jessica's house. There was more national outrage over his lying roommates, and even more when State Attorney Brad King concluded they could not be prosecuted. Politicians weighed in. Cable TV celebrities foamed at the mouth.

Meanwhile Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, honored his daughter, launching a state and national campaign to protect other children from sexual predators. That kept the case alive in the public eye, says University of Florida law professor Michael Seigel.

"What he has done is a good thing, but it has complicated the ability to get a fair trial," Seigel says. "But I'm confident that can be done. He can still get a fair trial if they move it far enough away."

A different venue or even transporting jurors from a distant county to Citrus changes the logistics of trying Couey. It will get more expensive, but prosecutor Magrino believes it would be more than justified.

Spending more money to ensure that Couey gets a fair trial, so that if he is sentenced to death the verdict won't be overturned on appeal, saves money in the long run, he says. But this isn't just about Couey.

"You have to take into account the price of any victim's life, in this case a small child's life," Magrino says. "It's priceless."

You can't put a price tag on justice for Jessica.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 15, 2006, 22:07:23]


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