Jury to hear jail statements

Published February 14, 2007

MIAMI - In a major victory for prosecutors, jurors will get to hear John Couey's most recent jailhouse statements about the killing of Jessica Lunsford, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard said defense attorneys failed to present "one shred of evidence" to indicate that the admissions resulted from illegal interrogation.

Howard heard extensive testimony from two jail guards, John Read and Nathalia Windham, about the conditions at the Citrus County jail before finding that Couey's statements were made voluntarily.

"I told Couey at one time that he needed to be careful what he said and who he said it to," Windham told the judge. "You didn't initiate a conversation with Mr. Couey. If he didn't want to talk, he didn't talk."

The decision came during a break in jury selection, which began Monday in Miami after intense media coverage forced the trial out of Central Florida.

The pivotal development benefits prosecutors just days before they begin presenting their case. Couey is charged with kidnapping, raping and killing the 9-year-old Homosassa girl in 2005.

Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway has said the guards' testimony is crucial, especially after the judge tossed out a confession that Couey gave to investigators the night of his arrest.

But it's still not clear what potentially damaging statements the guards will reveal. On the witness stand, they avoided the topic, leaving only hints that Couey expressed "remorse for what happened." Prosecutors have intentionally kept secret the guards' sworn statements.

Jail guard Kenneth Slanker has already told prosecutors that Couey said he did not mean to kill Jessica. The judge long ago said that testimony was admissible.

On Tuesday, as the court reviewed this latest issue, Couey at times seemed troubled by the guards' testimony. He conferred with his attorneys but otherwise drew pictures with colored pencils on a legal pad.

His attorneys sensed the gravity of the decision. A frustrated Assistant Public Defender Daniel Lewan threw his head back and looked at the ceiling as Howard read his decision.

Lewan argued that the judge should suppress the admissions because the conditions of Couey's segregation at the jail and his diminished mental capacity amounted to a coerced interrogation.

"The techniques here are subtle but just as effective," Lewan said.

Robert Berland, a psychologist hired by the defense, told the judge that Couey suffers from a "long-standing psychotic disturbance" that includes hallucinations, delusions and mood disturbances.

He said he thinks the mental illness was caused by abuse that Couey suffered as a child, specifically noting the time when Couey's stepfather repeatedly bashed his head in a door for wetting the bed at age 3.

Berland said Couey's intelligence has been tested four times in his life, with variable results. The most recent and reliable test categorized him as mildly retarded.

Prosecutors contend that the tests are "inconclusive at best."

Still, legal observer Jim Ellis said the defense's argument is strong. The University of New Mexico law professor was a defense attorney on the landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case Atkins vs. Virginia, which determined that executing mentally retarded individuals was "cruel and unusual punishment."

Ellis said during a telephone interview Tuesday that false statements and confessions from people with mental disabilities is a "substantial and widespread problem." Ellis is not involved in the Couey case.

Howard avoided the issue of mental health in ruling on the suppression issue. He did take note that the guards said Couey liked the complicated Sudoku puzzles and wanted to get his high school diploma.

The issue is expected to return prominently if there is a guilty verdict. Defense attorneys filed motions earlier this week saying their client is retarded and ineligible for the death penalty.

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