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Couey's lawyers want his trial delayed

The defense also wants to bar the testimony of new state witnesses, including guards.

By ELENA LESLEY
Published January 20, 2007


John Couey's defense team wants a judge to postpone his trial, which is scheduled to start Feb. 12 in Miami.

Couey's lawyers were notified Jan. 11 of seven new state witnesses, including jail guards who had communications with Couey.

The defense says it needs more time to prepare. It also wants the court to bar the new witnesses.

The state objects to both requests, Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said Friday. A hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Couey is accused of the 2005 kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Homosassa. The state is seeking the death penalty.

The trial was moved to Miami after jury selection last year in Lake County proved fruitless. Too many potential jurors had heard about the case and about Couey's confession to investigators, which the judge ruled inadmissible because Couey was denied a lawyer.

For related reasons, Circuit Judge Ric Howard also has barred testimony from Orlando police investigators who say Couey made incriminating statements about Jessica.

These new witnesses came as a surprise, Ridgway said.

"Last week we were contacted and told there were corrections officers at the jail with information," Ridgway said. "We had no idea these people existed."

Ridgway said the Citrus County Sheriff's Office interviewed several of the new witnesses the day after they came forward.

"Within 30 minutes, a copy of the interview was hand delivered to the Public Defender's Office," he said. "I anticipated (the defense's motion). That's why we rushed everything."

Assistant Public Defender Dan Lewan's motion says the new evidence deals with communications between Couey and corrections officers from about a year ago.

But "we didn't know about this and sit on it," Ridgway said.

The prosecutor declined to comment on the nature of the interactions between Couey and the guards. The state is not obliged to release to the public any statements from a defendant, or any summary of what he might have said to someone else.

At least one other guard previously reported hearing incriminating statements from Couey.

Kenneth Slanker said Couey stated "that he did not mean to do what he did - he did not mean to kill her." Slanker's testimony will be allowed at trial.

In addition to the trial delay and the prohibition on testimony, Lewan wants:

- Copies of the guards' personnel files from Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that operates the jail on the county's behalf.

- A list of all Citrus corrections officers who have had contact with Couey.

- All reports, recordings, notes or other documents regarding contacts between Couey and the Sheriff's Office or employees and volunteers at the jail.

- A copy of the county's contract with Corrections Corporation of America and the company's training manuals.