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Couey loses appeal over judge

By JORGE SANCHEZ
Published February 8, 2007


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INVERNESS - Attorneys for John Couey on Wednesday filed - and quickly lost - an eleventh-hour attempt to have Circuit Judge Ric Howard disqualified from the case.

Howard rejected the motion to disqualify, deeming it legally insufficient. The judge will preside over Couey's murder trial, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection Monday in Miami.

At issue was a courtroom speaker phone conversation the judge had last week with a senior attorney from the Attorney General's Office, Ken Nunnelley

The conversation came in open court during a pretrial hearing in Couey's case.

During the conversation, Howard and Nunnelley referred to a U.S. Supreme Court case. Since both men had the case in front of them during the call, it implied that they may have had an improper conversation about it before the phone call, the defense motion stated.

Assistant Public Defender Dan Lewan said that any such conversation would constitute an ex parte communication, or discussion about the case without all attorneys present.

As a result, Couey says he doesn't think the judge can give him a fair trial. In fact, Couey said, he believes the judge is acting as an agent against him.

"I feel that the judge was requesting opinions from Mr. Nunnelley as his personal advisor to ensure a conviction that would stand up on appeal," Couey wrote in an affidavit filed with the motion to disqualify.

Couey is accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa. The state is seeking the death penalty. The trial was moved to Miami after efforts to seat an impartial jury last year in Lake County failed. Too many potential jurors knew about the case and, more specifically, about Couey's confession to authorities, which were tainted and thus won't be used as evidence against him.

Jorge Sanchez can be reached at sanchez@sptimes.com or 860-7313.

[Last modified February 7, 2007, 23:29:19]


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