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Jury seated in Couey trial

The panel, called "fundamentally unfair" by a public defender, begins work today.

By Michael Kruse and John Frank
Published March 1, 2007


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[Times photo]
John Couey's trial in Miami is expected to last two to three weeks.

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  • MIAMI - The members of the painstakingly picked jury that will hear the criminal case of John Couey include a billing clerk at a children's psychiatric center, a Cuban-born man whose mother was mentally ill and one woman whose daughter was sexually abused when she was a child.

    Couey, 48, is accused of taking, raping and killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa in February 2005. More than half of the jurors know something about the case. More than half also believe mental illness or a shortcoming could be a reason for a lesser sentence.

    The six-man, six-woman jury was finalized just before 4 p.m. Wednesday. Opening statements are today. Circuit Judge Ric Howard told the jurors and three alternates to expect the rest of the trial to last two to three weeks.

    The jurors will decide two things:

    Is Couey guilty? And if he is guilty, should he live the rest of his life in prison, with no possibility of parole, or should he die by lethal injection?

    Public Defender Daniel Lewan argued the jury was slanted toward the state. Lewan asked Howard for more strikes to get six more jurors off the panel, calling the jury fundamentally unfair. Howard said no.

    "We in the end controlled the panel," 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King said.

    Legal expert Charlie Rose doesn't think so.

    "You have an awful lot of jurors with some connection to psychological careers either themselves or through their families, and quite a few who have military or law-enforcement background," Rose, a law professor at Gulfport's Stetson University College of Law, said after reviewing a Times-compiled list of juror bios.

    "This is not a bad jury for either side," he added, "but if the defense can properly and cogently present mental impairment, and perhaps even prove it during sentencing, there may be an actual fight about the sentence recommended."

    Here's who will be making that decision:

    Juror No. 433 is a white woman who had an alcoholic stepfather and works at a children's psychiatric center.

    Juror No. 338 is a black man whose brother just got out of the Air Force.

    Juror No. 871 is a Hispanic woman who roots for underdogs.

    Juror No. 266 is a black woman who is worried about missing singles night at church.

    Juror No. 114 is a white woman with the daughter who was sexually molested by her ex-husband.

    Jurors' names aren't being disclosed due to a court order, and ages aren't being released, either.

    Five of the 12 know nothing about the case. But one woman knows the name Jessica Lunsford has something to do with sex offenses. Another woman knows that Lunsford was found near Couey's mobile home and has vague knowledge of the investigation. One man even knows she was buried alive.

    Seven of the 12 said a person's mental capacity could be reason enough to decide on a sentence other than death. Couey's attorneys are expected to say he is retarded and ineligible for the death penalty.

    And all the jurors told attorneys they had no strong feelings about the death penalty.

    Jury selection was a tedious 2 1/2 weeks. Attorneys questioned 288 potential jurors. They were asked about everything from what type of car they drive to whether they could sentence a man to die.

    One woman said this trial "may be one of the most important things I'll ever do."

    Juror No. 871 was asked if she could go with death if she felt it was the appropriate sentence.

    She paused.

    "Yes," she said.

    She looked over at the defense table, real quickly, and at Couey.

    "Yes," she said again.

    Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7312.

    [Last modified March 1, 2007, 09:35:09]


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