tampabay.com

Next test: Could you sentence man to die?

The state is seeking the death penalty if Couey is convicted in the kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

By JOHN FRANK
Published February 26, 2007


MIAMI - Jury selection in the trial of John Couey enters the second and final phase today: death qualification.

The state is seeking the death penalty if Couey is convicted in the kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford. The process of asking potential jurors about their views on the death penalty is expected to take a couple of days.

The main question that will be posed to the pool of 71 jurors: Can you follow the law and sentence a man to death, or are your personal views or religious convictions so strong that it creates a reasonable doubt in your mind about your ability to impose the death penalty?

Attorneys also plan to further question jurors about their knowledge of the case and whether being sequestered for two to three weeks constitutes a hardship.

Once a prospective juror makes it through those questions, prosecutors and defense attorneys get the opportunity to use one of their 10 strikes to eliminate a juror without legal cause. Those who advance become jurors.

Opening statements will begin once the 12-member jury and six alternates are seated.

It's a process fraught with legal maneuvering, especially when it comes to the death penalty factor.

Many legal experts say the guilty verdicts are a foregone conclusion based on the evidence prosecutors will present. And that makes the death qualification of jurors the most crucial step in the trial for Couey's defense team, said John Trevena, a Largo defense attorney.

"As a defense attorney you want someone who would really have difficulties imposing (death) even though they say they can," he said.

It's not an easy strategy, though, said veteran death penalty attorney J. Larry Hart of New Port Richey.

"Jurors that are death-qualified, all the studies about this say they are very much inclined to impose the death penalty," said Hart, a former assistant state attorney who now is a private defense lawyer.

"So the death qualification itself shows you get a skewed jury in favor of the prosecution."

Couey's attorneys plan to ask a judge to determine that the 48-year-old Homosassa man is mentally retarded and not eligible for the death penalty under state law.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard said he wants to seat a jury first. He said he would hold a hearing on the issue if the jury returns guilty verdicts.