tampabay.com

Trial set to begin Monday

By JOHN FRANK
Published February 10, 2007


INVERNESS - The trial of the man accused of killing Jessica Lunsford will begin Monday with jury selection in Miami after a judge denied last-minute attempts by defense attorneys to force a delay.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard on Friday rejected another request for a continuance made by John Couey's attorneys. They asked for more time to prepare a motion to suppress incriminating statements their client allegedly gave to jail guards. The new admissions were discovered just last month.

Howard said he will hear attorneys' arguments Tuesday morning during a break in jury selection.

The judge also dealt with a relatively new issue that could have delayed the trial: Couey's mental competency.

Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter said a new expert defense witness conducted tests that found Couey is mentally retarded, meaning he is not eligible for the death penalty.

Fanter wanted the court to rule on Couey's mental state before an elaborate capital trial. He argued that a positive finding would greatly affect the proceedings and the sentence Couey might receive if he is convicted.

"We are going to spend an awful lot of time and resources for nothing," Fanter argued about the time in Miami.

But Howard said he would hear the matter after the jury renders a verdict and before the panel recommends a sentence.

The issue of mental capacity is not entirely new. After the state announced it would seek the death penalty, Couey's attorneys said they would present evidence illustrating his diminished mental state.

Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said the defense presented the issue previously and didn't need additional time. He seemed annoyed by the repeated requests for delays.

"Every time they do something they think of something else they want to do," he told the judge.

Also Friday, a number of sworn interviews with jail guards were made public. In one, corrections officer Cathy Biedenstein recalls a conversation in which Couey expressed remorse for Jessica's death.

"What he said to me was that he was sorry for what he had done and that he prayed each day that Jessica would forgive him for what he had done to her," she told attorneys.

Couey is charged with kidnapping, raping and killing the 9-year-old Homosassa girl in 2005.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 860-7312.