Couey trial in cramped quarters

Published January 13, 2007

MIAMI - Even on a typical Friday, a line of people awaiting security checks winds down the steps of Miami's Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.

"It's hectic," said Eunice Sigler, director of public relations in the 11th Judicial Circuit. "It's just like you kicked over an anthill around here."

At the information desk inside, questions about John Couey elicit a blank stare. The trial of Couey, who is accused of killing Jessica Lunsford, is set to begin here Feb. 12. It's a long way from Citrus County.

Yet some elements remain similar. Months have passed since Circuit Judge Ric Howard declared that publicity about the case had tainted the Lake County jury pool, but the media remain as intent on covering the grisly case as ever.

About 50 members of the press turned up at the courthouse Friday to discuss trial logistics with local court staffers. They wrangled over video feeds and clamored for coveted seats to watch the highly anticipated trial.

While Miami may dwarf Tavares in size, the scale doesn't carry over to the courtrooms. Reporters may get fewer seats than they did in Tavares, where 32 were allowed inside at a time.

"It's embarrassing," said Sandy Lonergan, director of operations for the criminal division, referring to the building's limitations. Constructed in the 1950s, the facility was never intended to be a criminal courthouse. "We've grown into it."

Benches for the press sit at an angle in the wood-paneled courtroom. A public viewing area is at the rear, squarely facing an illuminated backdrop that hovers behind the bench.

It was in this setting, nearly three decades ago, that serial killer Ted Bundy was tried and convicted.

Sigler will determine how many courtroom seats each news organization gets. If the demand is too great, she might resort to a lottery system.

Space concerns extended beyond the courtroom. The court's designated "media room" resembles a small college dorm room, complete with Men in Black II and DaVinci Code posters. Since the journalists and their equipment couldn't all fit in the "shoebox," as people began calling it, they will most likely be moved to a recently vacated law library on the eighth floor.

"Don't laugh - this is our building!" Lonergan joked, as the media mob inspected surroundings.

While Miami may pose its own logistical challenges, Howard hopes the metropolis will be fertile ground for selecting a jury. He originally moved jury selection out of Citrus County to Tavares, the far east end of the 5th Judicial Circuit, because the case had received so much exposure locally.

But even in the greater Orlando area, too many people had heard about the slain Homosassa 9-year-old and Couey's confession, which the judge deemed inadmissible.

In Miami, the Couey trial won't be the only show in town. While the Tavares courthouse had plenty of empty space, Miami's halls bustle with lawyers, journalists, witnesses and defendants. The week the Couey trial begins, two or three other death penalty cases may be held.

Just like officials closer to home, those in Miami want an "orderly and expedited process," Lonergan said. "By God, we don't want to retry it."