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Miami-Dade gets Couey trial

Officials think a jury can be found there that has not been tainted by the case's high profile coverage.

By JOHN FRANK
Published September 13, 2006


infobox:

Some big differences

In moving a trial, state law demands similar demographics. Census statistics indicate that Citrus and Miami-Dade counties are very different.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey.

INVERNESS - The murder trial of sex offender John Couey is headed for Miami-Dade County, a move that could be an advantage to the defense and become an issue on appeal.

The change to a big city hundreds of miles away should improve the chances of finding 12 jurors who haven't been biased by the publicity surrounding the grisly kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, court officials said.

Citrus County court officials announced the move Tuesday, adding that a tentative start date was set for Feb. 12.

Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, was satisfied with the decision.

"I think they can find a jury in Miami," he said. "I don't care where we do it as long as it gets done."

Jessica was taken from her Citrus County bedroom last year, raped and buried alive. Her disappearance and murder made national headlines.

In July, Circuit Judge Ric Howard moved jury selection to Tavares, a small town similar to Inverness in nearby Lake County. He hoped to keep the trial contained to the 5th Judicial Circuit.

The idea was to pick a jury of Lake County residents and then hold the rest of the trial in Inverness. Four days into the selection process, Howard determined that finding an unbiased panel in Tavares would be impossible.

Intense media coverage was partly to blame. About two out of every three potential jurors said they had formed an opinion about the case or knew about Couey's confession, which Howard had ruled inadmissible.

Court officials believe Miami-Dade will provide a jury pool untainted by pre-trial publicity.

"They've got 2- to 3-million people there. You know good and well they can find 12 people who don't have an opinion on the case," said 5th Circuit Chief Judge Victor Musleh, who arranged the trial relocation.

In selecting a new venue, state law says judges should give priority to areas that resemble the original county's demographics.

Citrus County will never be mistaken for the Miami-Dade area.

Citrus is a small, mostly rural county with a 95 percent white population. Miami-Dade is densely populated with a younger, largely minority demographic, according to recent Census figures.

Musleh said finding a location with demographics similar to Citrus wasn't practical.

"If you go to a small county, you never get a jury," Musleh said. "In a large county, you have a lot of high profile cases with big publicity."

Musleh considered Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Clearwater. He settled on Miami-Dade because it had an available courtroom and officials there are accustomed to picking juries.

Court officials toyed with the idea of keeping the new location secret as long as possible because of the media attention. But that would have been impossible, said Ric Ridgway, the lead prosecutor in the Couey case.

"By announcing it now, you get it out of the way," he said. "It will be a blip and then maybe it won't show up again for five months."

The defense attorneys, who could not be reached for comment, could appeal the change of venue. Several legal experts, however, said the move from small town to big city could favor Couey.

John Trevena, a Largo lawyer not connected to the case, said the defense should be pleased.

"When you have a large number of minorities in the jury pool, it generally tends to favor the defense," Trevena said. "It's kind of the unspoken truth of jury selection."

Whether the location is an advantage or not, Trevena said a good defense team will preserve every possible avenue of appeal.

"In a first-degree murder case, everything get's appealed," he said. "If the defense loses, I would guess the change of venue would be appealed."

Parts of Miami's Hispanic population lean conservative, which former federal prosecutor Mike Seigel said works in the prosecution's favor.

"Conventional wisdom is (that) big cities favor the defense," said Seigel, who teaches law at the University of Florida. "But I'm not sure Miami fits conventional wisdom because of its demographics."

Many high-profile cases have relocated to Miami.

In 1979, serial killer Ted Bundy's trial was moved from Tallahassee to Miami, where a jury sentenced him to death for the murder of two Florida State University sorority sisters from St. Petersburg.

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7312.

[Last modified September 13, 2006, 05:31:01]


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Citrus

Miami
Population 132,209 2,329,187
Median age 50 37
White 95% 71%
Black 2% 20%
Hispanic 3% 61%
Median household income $34,084 $37,148
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