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The Jessica Lunsford tragedy

How to color Couey: crazy or calculating?

Published February 26, 2007

Assistant Public Defender Morris Carranza shows John Couey a variety of coloring books during jury selection.

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[Miami Herald]
[Miami Herald]
Couey colors a brontosaurus Feb. 14, the third day of jury selection in Miami for his trial in the 2005 kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

MIAMI - John Couey, gray-haired and balding at age 48, sat hunched over the defense table last week, gripping colored pencils and focusing intently on staying within the lines of a dinosaur coloring book.

In front of him, the prospective jurors who could decide whether he lives or dies filed through the courtroom.

From the witness chair, one woman vividly described "the horror" of Jessica Lunsford's death.

The man accused of the crime barely looked up.

His unusual behavior started Feb. 13, when the court took a break from jury selection so defense attorneys could present evidence that Couey is mentally retarded. He has been coloring ever since.

The timing is questionable. Couey has never colored in court before, not even in July in Lake County, where jury selection ended in a mistrial on the fourth day.

His behavior has generated outrage from Jessica's father and sparked a debate among court observers about whether Couey's doodling is part of a defense strategy to color the jury.

"The coloring book defense - that's one I have not seen before," said Charlie Rose, a Stetson University College of Law professor. "It's kind of brilliant. You know it's got the judge and state thinking."

So far, Circuit Judge Ric Howard has tacitly condoned Couey's behavior, not mentioning it once.

Prosecutors have also kept silent, but that could change. Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said Friday that he would confront the issue in court today.

Couey's defense attorneys never offered an explanation and have consistently declined to comment.

Harmless or gimmick?

Legal experts not affiliated with the trial are speculating about the defense's intent and what impact Couey's behavior could have on the jury.

Maybe the coloring is harmless: a doctor's recommendation to help Couey deal with the stresses of the trial, or just a way to keep him awake through the painstakingly slow jury selection process.

Maybe it's a gimmick: a concerted effort to influence potential jurors' view of Couey's mental status.

"The question is whether it is the product of some meaningful circumstance or state of mind," said J. Larry Hart, a former prosecutor and defense attorney in New Port Richey. "If cosmetic, it's inappropriate and shouldn't be occurring. If legit, it might be a way ... to maintain order."

Either way, Couey's behavior will make an impression, said Largo defense attorney John Trevena.

"Every experienced trial lawyer is keenly aware of the importance of the appearance of your client to the jury," he said. "There's no way Couey's attorney is letting it slide by - he has an agenda."

Trevena said he makes sure his clients dress in their Sunday best, sit up straight, pay attention and react coolly to emotional testimony.

He said he doesn't use props, but acknowledges it happens: a neck brace or pair of crutches for a defendant injured in a car accident where culpability is in question.

"Some people say (a defendant's behavior) is equally important to the facts themselves," Trevena said. "The defendant sends subliminal messages and feelings to the jury."

Debatable impact

In this case, the message in the coloring isn't clear.

Bruce Winick, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in psychiatry, thinks it could have some value. "It seems he'd be paying attention if he was fully competent," he said. "So I think (jurors) are probably going to see him as a child."

But, he said, it only works if the jury considers it legitimate.

Jail guards expected to take the stand will confirm that Couey spends much of his days drawing and shading with the colored pencils.

But they also will tell jurors that the defendant likes to read the newspaper, Bible and work on Sudoku puzzles, a complicated mathematical game.

Hart, the former assistant state attorney, said this testimony could outweigh the appearances in the courtroom. Also, the pictures Couey is coloring show that he is a meticulous artist. "He's not painting alligators pink," Hart said.

With this in mind, Trevena doesn't understand the defense's strategy.

"To commit an offense against a child and to be playing like a child at the defense table is offensive," he said. "I can't fathom having your client sitting next to you coloring. What does that say about your defense?"

Likewise, Rose isn't sure it will help Couey's case. "I don't think it's going to have a bit of impact on the jury," the Stetson professor said.

"I think he could walk in wearing a diaper and the jury wouldn't care because of the heinous nature of the crime."

John Frank can be reached at or (352) 860-7312.

[Last modified February 26, 2007, 05:32:49]

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