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Statements stricken from Couey trial

Comments he made can't be used against him because his lawyer was not present.

By JORGE SANCHEZ
Published January 9, 2007


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INVERNESS - John Couey won another legal battle on Monday when a judge ruled that incriminating statements he made to Orlando detectives will not be mentioned at trial.

In an eight-page ruling, Circuit Judge Ric Howard said that, since Couey had already been placed in custody and invoked his rights to counsel, he could not be questioned by police without his lawyer.

In July, the confession that Couey gave to Citrus authorities was thrown out for essentially the same reasons.

Couey is charged in the 2005 sexual battery, kidnapping and slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Marie Lunsford. His trial is scheduled to start Feb. 12 in Miami. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

In March, Orlando detectives questioned Couey about an unrelated 1985 slaying, which Couey denied committing.

According to the detectives, Couey said: "I don't know why I did this, but I did. I ain't never done anything like this before. This is the first time I ever done something stupid like this."

The investigators said they assumed he was referring to Jessica.

The Orlando detectives were given access to Couey by Citrus sheriff's detectives. They didn't tell them that Couey had invoked his right to counsel and already had a lawyer, the judge's ruling states.

The Orlando police should have been familiar enough with criminal procedures to have asked Couey if he had a lawyer, the judge wrote.

Also, the Orlando detectives should not have waited to come forward until after Couey's confession to Citrus authorities was thrown out in July, Howard ruled. They should have reported the alleged confession to Citrus County detectives when it occurred, the ruling stated.

In his order, Howard pointed out that Couey had invoked his right to counsel in Augusta, Ga., prior to his transfer to Citrus County.

"The Orlando officers could not approach, hence question, him about the murder of another child," the judge wrote.

Howard threw out the confession to Citrus authorities after finding that the detectives violated Couey's rights by continuing to question him after he repeatedly requested a lawyer.

The judge also ruled earlier this summer that Couey's past as a registered sex offender can't be used against him at trial.

Prosecutor Ric Ridgway, contacted in Ocala for a comment on the latest ruling, said:

"There really isn't much to comment on. The judge heard the evidence and based his ruling on that. We'll proceed with the evidence we have."

Couey's chief defense lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Dan Lewan, declined to comment.

While Couey's defense team has won some major battles, prosecutors still say they have enough evidence for a conviction. Among the evidence:

-Oct. 11 remarks at the Citrus County jail. Couey told detectives that he didn't know why he killed Jessica and that he was not a violent man.

-March 5 remarks at the jail: "I didn't mean to do what I did. I didn't mean to kill her," Couey told a guard.

-Jessica's body. The judge says investigators would have discovered the grave outside Couey's mobile home even without his tainted confession.

-DNA evidence. Blood stain on Couey's mattress matched Jessica.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Contact Jorge Sanchez at sanchez@sptimes.com or 860-7313 in Citrus or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 7313 toll-free.

[Last modified January 9, 2007, 00:10:04]


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