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Couey jury selection begins with a crawl

Though in Miami, potential jurors still know plenty about the case.

By JOHN FRANK
Published February 12, 2007


MIAMI — Three hundred miles from where she was killed, in a city culturally a world away from the fishing village of Homosassa, Jessica Lunsford is still widely known.

The first day of jury selection in the trial of John Couey, the man suspected of killing Jessica, went slower than expected, as nearly three out of four potential jurors said they knew something about the case.

Fifty-two jurors were questioned Monday, but only 13 advanced to a second round scheduled for later this week. The rate is slower than in Lake County, where jury selection was abandoned in July after the search for an impartial panel proved impossible.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard, who seeks 12 jurors and six alternates, dismissed many prospects on the grounds that a possible monthlong trial and sequestration would be too much of a hardship. Others knew about Couey’s inadmissible confession to detectives — an automatic point of dismissal — and a handful more had limited English skills.

The slow progress will likely force jury selection into next week.

Today will see a break in the process as the judge hears pivotal arguments about whether to suppress incriminating statements Couey allegedly made to jail guards.

The statements are a vital part of the prosecution’s case, in part because the judge has already suppressed some of the statements Couey made to detectives after his arrest.

Prosecutors planned to call two witnesses, both guards from the Citrus County jail who said they heard Couey make incriminating statements in the last year.

Guard John Read, in a statement to investigators, said Couey detailed how he abducted, raped and buried 9-year-old Jessica alive outside his mobile home in 2005.

Couey’s attorneys planned to call four rebuttal witnesses and could also incorporate their argument that Couey is mentally retarded. They filed court papers late Monday listing 13 factors, including a history of abuse as a child and evidence of a brain injury, illustrating why Couey is retarded and not eligible for the death penalty.

The statements were revealed just last month. Couey’s defense team, saddled with the new evidence and few days of preparation, started the Miami proceedings by saying they weren’t ready for trial.

“It’s humanly impossible to do this job this court is ordering us to do,” said Assistant Public Defender Daniel Lewan, standing next to a 2-foot-high stack of documents piled on his desk.

As with past requests for delays, Howard showed no patience. “The fact of the matter is, this case is going forward,” the Citrus judge said from the bench.

Howard, and the attorneys, proceeded to spend more than five hours questioning prospective jurors one by one in a painstaking process that netted few people willing to bear the burden of a death penalty trial.

One man in the pool who knew a lot about the case didn’t even make it to the first question. “I think he’s guilty,” he said as he sat down in the witness chair. When the judge asked if he could set aside his preconceived opinions, the man said: “No. I got kids.”

In Lake County last year, the first attempt to seat a jury ended abruptly on the fourth day. Many of those prospective jurors had heard about the confession to investigators that Howard had tossed out of court.

Fewer potential jurors knew of the confession in Miami, despite the blitz of media attention. Some legal observers saw it as a promising sign that a jury could be selected.

The murder “doesn’t stand out so much here,” said Bruce Winick, a University of Miami law professor. “People are almost jaded to violent crime.”

But Stetson University College of Law professor Charlie Rose thinks the purported ignorance is misleading.

“I’m not convinced (jury selection) is going to be any easier,” Rose said. “On the surface it may be easier, but not in the long run.”

Times staff writer Elena Lesley contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at (352) 860-7312 or jfrank@sptimes.com.