If this is a ploy, color it sick

Published March 1, 2007

So John Couey has found a relaxing way to while away the hours in court, by coloring in drawings of dinosaurs. Look! He even manages to stay within the lines! How sweet.

Gag me.

This new activity for the man accused of committing the most horrendous crime in Citrus County's history may well be just his childish way of killing time before he is tried for killing a real child.

Or it may be a sick, desperate ploy by a defense team to win a drop of sympathy from a jury that soon will get to know the real John Couey.

No one can say for sure. And it really shouldn't matter.

Unfortunately, it does. Stranger things have happened in American courtrooms, especially in high-profile cases, for anyone to assume that jurors and judges can see through the malarkey.

Exhibit A: O.J. is still walking among us, playing golf, writing books and entertaining delusions of a comeback. Oh, and pressing on with his search for the real killer of his wife and her friend.

Think the so-called Twinkie defense is just some invention of late-night comedians? It's quite real, and it was successful in getting a charge of murder cut to manslaughter in a celebrated 1979 trial.

The defendant's attorneys argued that their client, a fitness fanatic, was so depressed that he was not in his right mind at the time of the attacks. As evidence, they pointed to his conspicuous consumption of Twinkies and soft drinks, things definitely not on his usual menu.

The court ate it up, and the accused avoided a murder conviction.

It is as ridiculous as the apocryphal tale of the defendant on trial for killing his parents who pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

The point is, anything can, and does, happen in courtrooms, especially when the media is around. Nothing is too bizarre for the evening news.

Witness the bawling judge in the Anna Nicole Smith court proceedings who is auditioning for his own television show at the expense of the families involved in this made-for-TV drama.

It is too early to know whether any of the jurors in the Couey case will be affected by the sight of the defendant's childlike activities. Some may well take offense and feel they are being played for dopes by a clumsy defense scheme. This could make the challenges for Team Couey that much tougher.

Or they may couple this infantile image with the portrait the defense will try to paint of an abused man-child who is not fully responsible for his actions and feel sorry for scrawny, balding man doodling in his coloring books.

That will be a stretch once the meaty part of the trial gets under way and the jury is confronted with the evidence surrounding 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford's final hours. Or when corrections officers describe Couey's interest in the brain-busting Sudoku math puzzles that are all the rage of the intelligentsia.

The prosecution on Monday tried to get the judge to make Couey stop the child's play, arguing that his actions amounted to "nonverbal testimony." It has not gone unnoticed that Couey's courtroom coloring books appeared only at the point when the defense team started pushing the argument that he is mentally ill and retarded.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard ruled for the defense, noting that Couey is on trial for his life and if this is how he calms himself in court, so be it.

Howard blithely dismissed the doodling as being "as troublesome as a cloudy day."

We'll soon find out if the jury shares that casual conviction.

Greg Hamilton is editor of editorials of the Citrus Times.