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Scales of justice demand acutely delicate balance

Published February 4, 2007


For a judge in a criminal trial, it is a delicate balancing act: How to respond to a defense attorney's request for more time to prepare a case? Is it a legitimate effort to gather essential information or just a stall tactic?

In our legal system, the benefit of the doubt typically goes to the defense because a person's liberty, and in some cases his or her life, is at stake. Besides, if you rush a case precipitously you pave the way for a guilty verdict to be overturned on appeal. Better to take the time and get it right.

The flip side, of course, is that granting repeated continuances means the day in court that is owed not just to the accused but to the victims, and the public, can be dragged out indefinitely.

There are practical concerns as well. Witnesses can forget key elements of their testimony over time, or disappear altogether. Evidence can get damaged or lost in the shuffle.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard on Thursday found himself weighing these arguments as the defense in the upcoming trial of John Couey once again demanded more time to prepare its case.

Public defenders for Couey, who is accused of kidnapping, raping and burying alive 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, said the state has dumped 11 new witnesses and about 1,000 pages of documents on them in recent weeks. There is simply not enough time, they said, to wade through this material to be ready for the trial, set to begin on Feb. 12.

An abundance of caution would dictate that the judge grant the defense a delay. After all, it was the prosecution, not the defense, that brought forth this mountain of new evidence.

It was not quite so simple, however. Prosecutors pointed out that the new witnesses came to their attention Jan. 10 and were revealed to the defense the very next day. It is now February, and the defense team not only has not interviewed them, they have not even scheduled a date to do so.

The defense said it needs time to prepare for a quality interview, to ask the right questions, to study books on interrogation techniques that these new witnesses, who are corrections officers, may have used in talking to Couey while he's been behind bars.

The exasperated prosecutor replied that at this rate, there can be no end point for this defense tactic, that they can go back to the Magna Carta in their legal research (the defense had already referenced the Geneva Conventions and Abu Ghraib). Let's get this trial moving.

It is hard to argue that the judge has in any way hamstrung the defense to this point. A week ago, when the issue of the new evidence came up, Howard gave the defense team a new member, local attorney Charles Vaughn, to help with the workload.

On Thursday, however, the defense said thanks but no thanks. They asked the judge to remove Vaughn, saying it was taking too much time to bring him up to speed on the complicated case.

Howard sent Vaughn home, then reminded the defense that as far back as two years ago, he said that if they needed any help, all they had to do was ask.

When the defense asked that the trial be moved out of Citrus County, Howard hauled the entire judicial assemblage to Lake County in search of unbiased jurors.

When that didn't work, he arranged to move the trial to Miami-Dade, which not only is far from the community where the crime occurred but it also gave the defense access to a much more urbanized and diverse jury pool, people who may not be as shocked by the horrific aspects of this crime as would rural Floridians.

Howard also has tossed out a confession that Couey made to Citrus County investigators and banned from the trial potentially incriminating remarks Couey made to Orlando police.

He also has ruled that Couey's criminal past cannot be used against him in the trial, including a case in which Couey was accused of breaking into a Crystal River house, going into a 12-year-old girl's bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her, elements that eerily echo Jessica's ordeal.

Howard has been very careful in his handling of the case, but he knows that this case should not drag on forever. This month will mark two years since Jessica was killed. That has to mean something.

The interests of justice demand that a defendant be given every opportunity to prepare a proper defense. But let's not forget the equally compelling demand for justice for Jessica and the other victims of this crime.

It is a daunting balancing act, and on Thursday, Howard tilted toward the prosecution. The defense was told to get it in gear; the trial will proceed as scheduled.

Time will tell if he made the right call.


[Last modified February 7, 2007, 13:24:34]

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