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Potential jury bias was even in dreams

Information on the John Couey trial followed potential jurors out of the courtroom, according to jury selection transcripts.

Published July 18, 2006

One potential juror in the John Couey trial said people had told her that Couey should "fry." Another said he had disturbing dreams about Jessica Lunsford, the girl Couey is accused of killing.

Transcripts released Monday reveal some of the concerns that potential jurors from Lake County expressed to Circuit Judge Ric Howard during private bench conferences Thursday. After dismissing nearly a dozen jurors because they knew too much about the case, Howard announced that the trial would have to start over in a new location.

"This case simply cannot be presented. We cannot pick a jury here in Lake County," Howard told a Tavares courtroom filled with prospective jurors and members of the media.

Though jury selection was moved to the farthest reaches of the 5th Judicial Circuit, the amount of publicity surrounding Jessica's death made it impossible to find an unbiased jury in a timely manner.

The judge began Thursday, the fourth day of jury selection, by asking if any jurors had been exposed to information about the case since they were last questioned.

Hands shot up.

Howard asked potential jurors to approach the bench to discuss their individual situations out of earshot of the media and other potential jurors.

Dismissals commenced. Even though Howard had instructed the jury pool to avoid exposure to the case, some found that impossible, especially when it came to Couey's suppressed confession.

Mention of the "C-word," as Howard referred to it during bench conferences, disqualified a handful of potential jurors.

David Brown told the judge that he had heard about the confession - and Couey's previous molestation of children - on Court TV.

While chatting in the kitchen, prospective juror Ann Berner's mother said, "I don't understand why it's taking so long, since he already admitted killing the child."

Howard asked Berner how this statement affected her ability to be unbiased.

"He did it, in my mind," she said. "I don't know why he would admit to it if he hadn't done it."

Others who talked with Howard said they had learned more about the case from other members of the public.

When Ellen Hanson stopped by her local gas station, workers there asked if she was still on jury duty. She said yes, and was warned by other patrons, "If you're on the Couey case, you should let him freaking fry," she told the judge.

Some potential jurors had personal reasons that they thought they couldn't serve.

Fernando Genes, a native of Colombia, said he didn't think his English was strong enough to understand the intricacies of the case. Ed Hartwick reported that he had met Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, through motorcycle events.

Austin Rigdon told Howard that he "had a dream about the little girl, and it's been disturbing to me."

After hearing concerns from the jury pool, Howard decided that he would have to sequester all jurors immediately.

Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter also raised the concern that Lake County jurors might be exposed to information between their sequestration for the trial and, if Couey is found guilty, their later judgment on sentencing.

With the approval of both the prosecution and the defense, Howard told all members of the jury pool that they could go home.

"The rights of the accused to have a fair and impartial panel to decide his case ... sometimes butts up against the First Amendment's rights of the media to cover this matter."

[Last modified July 18, 2006, 06:08:16]

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