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How good is case against Couey?

By JOHN FRANK
Published February 12, 2007


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MIAMI - In the minds of many, the trial of John Couey seems like a perfunctory step on the path toward justice.

So confident are people of Couey's guilt that suggesting any punishment shy of the death penalty is considered blasphemy in Citrus County.

Ask Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy. He said the case is "rock solid."

"I'm telling you, I got Couey," he said in 2005 amid criticism of his office's investigation.

But prosecutors know the case isn't a slam dunk. Flaws and gaps abound in the story of how 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford disappeared sometime during the night of Feb. 23 or early Feb. 24, 2005.

A Citrus County judge suppressed Couey's initial confession, which explicitly detailed what happened. The judge also won't allow any mention of his past crimes.

Defense attorneys are expected to exploit these shortcomings. How prosecutors explain the questions could greatly affect the jury's ultimate deliberations.

Prosecutors have one key piece of physical evidence: a stain on the mattress in Couey's bedroom that tested positive for Jessica's blood and his semen.

To buttress the case, the state will rely on evidence gathered after the investigation: specifically, the various incriminating statements Couey allegedly made to jail guards in the past year.

In March 2006, Couey reportedly told corrections Officer Kenneth Slanker "that he did not mean to do what he did - he did not mean to kill her."

Additional admissions, discovered last month, were allegedly made to two more jail guards. The defense wants to suppress the statements; a hearing will be held Tuesday.

These new statements, if allowed, would likely strengthen the prosecution's efforts from July when jury selection ended in a mistrial. But the statements won't help answer some of the unknown elements of the case.

How did Couey get in the house that night?

Before Ruth Lunsford, Jessica's grandmother, went to bed the night of Feb. 23, she locked the doors to the double-wide on S Sonata Avenue. Grandfather Archie Lunsford checked the locks when he went to bed an hour later, in line with his nightly ritual.

Jessica's father, Mark, arrived home the next morning at 6 and found a door unlocked and the screen door unlocked.

Ruth Lunsford said the latch was tricky and required an extra push before it clicked. There's a chance it was slightly ajar when they went to sleep.

Couey said he came in through an unlocked door about 3 a.m. and walked to Jessica's room. He told her to be quiet and follow him.

State and federal investigators didn't find any evidence to place Couey in the Lunsford home. Karen Lanning, an FBI forensic expert, says she finds such traces in about 10 percent of cases, though. Just because suspects enter a site doesn't mean they leave behind hairs and fibers, she told attorneys.

One thing still bothering Archie Lunsford: how the family's feisty wiener dog, Corky, didn't wake up if a stranger was in the house.

"It will always be a mystery to me," he told attorneys.

What happened between the break-in and Jessica's death?

Investigators discovered no signs of struggle in the Lunsford home or Couey's bedroom.

But Ruth Lunsford says she thinks Jessica was forced outside because her shoes were left untouched next to her bed. She said her granddaughter never left the house barefoot.

A knife was found in Couey's bedroom, but he said he didn't threaten the child with a weapon.

Jessica was found in a shallow grave outside the mobile home where Couey lived, but there is some question as to how she was buried alive. Investigators don't believe she was unconscious and toxicology tests for drugs were inconclusive.

Couey told police that Jessica had chances to escape but didn't. "I don't now why she didn't take off," he said.

How long was Jessica inside Couey's bedroom?

Two elements of the investigation still torment volunteers and authorities who led the national search for Jessica: finding her less than 150 yards from home, and the notion that she could have been alive when authorities first visited the mobile home where Couey lived.

In conflicting statements, Couey said he kept Jessica in his bedroom for at least three days but possibly as long as six days. He said he hid her in his closet, giving her water and food.

Law officers went to the mobile home and talked to one of Couey's housemates within the first three days that Jessica was missing. Couey hid out back when they came. He said if they had searched closely they would have found Jessica inside.

Couey's housemates dispute this claim. "There's no way, there's no way," said Madie Secord, Couey's niece. "We had to have heard that little girl if she was in there."

Prosecutors say they think Jessica was dead before sunup the day she was reported missing. They point to the medical examiner's report that found no evidence of food in Jessica's digestive system.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 352 860-7312.

Fast Facts:

Second attempt

Jury selection in the trial of John Couey begins this morning in Miami. The trial was moved from Lake County after efforts to seat a panel in July failed. Too many potential jurors knew about Couey's suppressed confession. The process of selecting 12 jurors is expected to take at least a week.

[Last modified February 12, 2007, 01:23:17]


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