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Guards next up against Couey

They are expected to give key testimony for the prosecution.

By JOHN FRANK
Published March 6, 2007


MIAMI - Prosecutors' case against John Couey isn't taking long. Still, they believe the evidence is overwhelming.

They intend to wrap up their case against the 48-year-old sex offender today with testimony from the medical examiner and three Citrus County jail guards.

Couey allegedly told the guards that he didn't mean to kill Jessica Lunsford, according to court documents. Their statements are vital to the case after Couey's initial confession was ruled inadmissible last year.

The testimony comes on Day 4 of the prosecutors' case.

On Monday, forensic expert after forensic expert took the stand to tell jurors about the mounds of evidence linking Couey to the kidnap, rape and murder of Jessica.

For the first time, her biological mother, Angela Bryant, appeared in court. She sat behind Archie and Ruth Lunsford, Jessica's paternal grandparents, in the back of the courtroom.

Bryant and Mark Lunsford split a year after Jessica's birth, and Mark got custody of the infant. Jessica's mother was not a presence in her life, and when she disappeared, it took authorities a couple of days to locate her.

"It's important she's here," Mark Lunsford said outside the courthouse. "She's still her daughter."

He said it was difficult for both of them to hear the physical evidence telling a story about Jessica's final hours.

There were fingerprints. Jessica's left thumb and Couey's two index fingers stamped on an old pizza box discovered in Couey's bedroom closet. A glass table in the bedroom produced more matches.

There was DNA. Inside Couey's closet, Jessica's DNA. On his mattress and two throw pillows, bloodstains matched the 9-year-old Homosassa girl.

State crime analyst Roshale Gaytmenn testified that one spot near a corner of the yellowed mattress tested positive for a mixture of Jessica's blood and Couey's semen.

"The basic point of today was Jessica Lunsford's fingerprints in the bedroom John Couey occupied," said Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit. "It pretty much ties the two together."

Defense attorneys mounted a solid challenge to the testimony, forcing state fingerprint analyst Wesley Zackery to acknowledge that six other prints found on the cardboard box were never tested.

Assistant Public Defender Daniel Lewan, during an unusually long cross-examination, also made Gaytmenn concede that Jessica's blood and Couey's semen might have been left on the mattress at different times.

Under further defense questioning, she acknowledged that unknown DNA samples from the pillows were never analyzed.

"Not for Matt Dittrich?" Lewan asked.

"No," she replied.

"Not for Gene Secord?"

"No."

With the questions, Lewan established a theory that Couey's two male housemates were possibly involved in Jessica's disappearance and death.

Both men testified earlier in the morning that they had no idea Jessica was in their mobile home and provided alibis for the night of Feb. 23, 2005, when Jessica disappeared.

Secord told jurors about conversations he had with Couey when Secord was jailed in March 2005 for failing to pay child support and Couey was awaiting trial in this case.

One conversation involved Couey's newfound fascination with religion. Secord asked Couey how he could hurt Jessica if he was so religious.

"He said, 'It's in the past and you can't live in the past,' " Secord testified. "He said if his sister would have loved him more, he wouldn't have done this."

Secord was placed in a cell next to Couey for six months in an area of the jail where only Couey and one other notorious inmate were held, according to court documents.

Defense attorneys didn't challenge the questionable inmate placement but they are expected to aggressively counter today's testimony from jail guards.

Lewan said in court papers that the guards used interrogation techniques to get Couey to make incriminating statements about the case. He likely will call Brandon psychologist Robert Berland as an expert witness to describe how Couey's mental illness made him more susceptible to their questions.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 352 860-7312.

Fast Facts:

 

In court Monday

Prosecutors piled high the mounds of physical evidence connecting John Couey and Jessica Lunsford. Her fingerprints were found on a cardboard box in Couey's closet and on a glass table in his bedroom. Her DNA was also found on his mattress and pillows.

SURPRISE: Jessica's mother, Angela Bryant, makes her first appearance in court. She and Mark Lunsford divorced when Jessica was a year old.

QUOTE: "It's important she's here. She's still her daughter." - Mark Lunsford on the arrival of Jessica's mother in court.

WHAT'S NEXT: Prosecutors could conclude their case today with testimony from the medical examiner and three Citrus County jail guards who allegedly heard Couey make incriminating statements.

 

More online

For video reports, photos and previous stories about the case, go to: tampabay.com/couey.

 

Live blog

Times staff writers will file daily reports from the Couey trial in Miami. For updates, go to: blogs.tampabay.com/couey.