Relocating Couey trial isn't ideal, but it's the right thing to do

Published September 14, 2006

In an ideal world, the murder trial of John Couey would take place in Citrus County.

This is the community where the heinous crimes he is accused of committing occurred. The residents of this county, the people who have suffered the most, who have grieved the longest for Jessica Lunsford, have an interest in having the case decided in their local courthouse.

Trials are typically held in the places where crimes are committed, and that is why the judge in the Couey case previously denied defense motions to move the trial.

But this is hardly a perfect world, and so the much-awaited judgment day for Couey will take place early next year in a courtroom far from here.

As hard as it may be for Citrus County residents to accept, the judges made the right decision to send the trial to Miami. The defendant's right to a fair trial, and the public's desire to see justice done, have left the judiciary with little choice but to move the trial.

This means that the jurors will not be Couey's peers. They will not come from a small, quiet country community but from a major urban environment where horrific crimes are all but commonplace. They will be people more inured to the cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on each other, even children. They will be people with much higher thresholds of shock and revulsion.

But it cannot be helped. The court tried without success to find a Central Florida panel, leaving 5th Circuit Chief Judge Victor Musleh and the trial judge, Circuit Judge Ric Howard, with no other viable options than to send the proceedings to Miami-Dade.

Logistics and practicality trumped the desire and goal of holding the trial in Citrus. After the futile four-day effort in July to select a jury in Lake County for a trial to be held in Citrus, the judiciary had no choice but to look elsewhere for unbiased jurors.

The idea is that residents of the Miami-Dade area will fill the bill of having not been overly exposed to the intense media coverage this case has generated nationwide.

That remains to be seen, but a personal observation indicates these hopes may be rewarded.

I happened to have been in Miami for several days in July when the jury selection was taking place in Lake County. I scoured the Miami Herald and flipped among the local TV stations for any scrap of news about the proceedings. There was not a single syllable to be found. (That is, unless the five Spanish language stations were reporting it. Not being a Spanish speaker, I had no clue what the news anchors were saying.)

The national cable news outlets reported Howard's decision to end jury selection, but that was the extent of the news the Miami market received of a case that has gripped much of the nation and which has spawned new sexual predator laws across the land.

Legally, the judges could have picked a jury in Miami and still held the trial in Citrus. That would have followed the earlier game plan, when the aim was to bring the Lake County jurors to Inverness.

In the interest of eliminating every possible hurdle to picking a panel, however, the judges choose to keep the jurors in their home county for the trial. Yes, the jurors will be sequestered, but they will stay in hometown hotels. This should quash a lot of the hardship arguments that the prospective jurors will try to float.

From a practical standpoint, holding the trial in Miami is not expected to be a significant burden on either side.

Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said the lead investigators on the case will have to stay in Miami for the duration, but they probably would be standing by at the trial every day anyway and not working other cases. The lab technicians and related expert witnesses are coming from Tampa or Washington, D.C., he said, so it doesn't matter much to them where the trial is held. The restaurant choices in Miami are better than those in Citrus, I'm told.

Ridgway doesn't expect to call many civilian witnesses other than the Couey family members who shared a mobile home with him, and they are all out of state now as well.

The only people adversely impacted by the change in venue are the residents of Citrus County who had planned on attending the trial in person. They can still do so, of course, if they are willing to travel five hours each way.

Ridgway understands the importance of holding a high-profile trial in the county where the crime took place, but he urged Citrus County to look at the larger picture. The defendant's right to a fair trial is paramount, he said, if justice is to be served.

"The overriding concern of a fair trial has to trump the public's desire to witness first-hand what is going to happen," Ridgway said. "Unfortunately, the ideal situation just isn't going to take place."