Couey jurors may go home, but are held on tight leash

Published March 9, 2007

MIAMI - For a week, Citrus County deputies have shielded jurors from the media frenzy surrounding the high-profile trial of Jessica Lunsford's accused killer.

But now some of the jurors who convicted John Couey of murder Wednesday are home for the weekend, creating a risky situation for the next phase of the trial.

The jury returns to Courtroom 4-1 on Tuesday to begin hearing testimony about whether the 48-year-old sex offender who kidnapped, raped and buried Jessica alive in black trash bags should live or die.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard released the entire 12-member panel and three alternates under the terms of a semi-sequestration.

The jurors were allowed to go home, but they couldn't go out, watch or read any media or talk to anyone about the trial. One juror asked if she could leave to go to the mall. Howard said no shopping.

"You are not being released from jury service," the judge said. "This semi-sequestration will just extend to your residential situation."

With the tight restrictions, not all wanted to leave the motel where they are being kept. Two or three asked to go home for a few hours and then return, and about eight of them wanted to just stay put.

The rest - four or five -plan to go home and return Monday evening.

Howard acknowledged he was taking a chance by letting jurors go. But he said he was confident jurors would follow his instructions and not ruin the weeks of hard work they've already put into the trial.

The judge will closely question jurors Tuesday about whether they were exposed to any media coverage. And for good reason.

Even in Miami - 300 miles from the Citrus County crime scene - news of the verdict is everywhere.

A bold "GUILTY" headline blared at the top of the Miami Herald's front page Thursday.

Its sister Spanish-language paper, el Nuevo Herald, also led with Couey's conviction.

"Culpable el monstruo violador y asesino," the headline read. The monster rapist and killer is guilty.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran a large photo of Couey and smaller photos of Mark Lunsford and Angela Bryant on its front page. A story about the verdict led the paper's metro section, and the New York Times National Report.

Miami TV stations have also devoted significant airtime to the case. News of the verdict led several nightly newscasts Wednesday.

WPLG-Ch. 10, the local ABC affiliate, posted an online survey asking whether Couey should have been found guilty. More than 270 people had responded by Thursday afternoon.

Five of them said no.

* * *

After the verdict, TV stations across the country broadcast interviews with Mark Lunsford, who rounded the familiar talk show circuit Wednesday and Thursday.

He told Larry King that Couey should get the death penalty. And he repeated that refrain Thursday morning on the CBS Early Show.

"It's an eye for an eye," he said.

Standing beside his attorney outside the courthouse, Lunsford spoke with Bill O'Reilly.

The talk show host did not apologize for his coverage of the case - as Sheriff Jeff Dawsy has suggested he should.

"We're glad justice was done in Florida," he said.

Several nighttime news talk show personalities had harsh words - and pictures - for Couey.

Nancy Grace held a fistful of crayons, mocking Couey's coloring in the courtroom. After showing a video clip from the trial, the camera cut back to Grace.

"I'm just sitting here coloring away, just like John Evander Couey. Uh-oh! Hangman`s noose," she said.

The camera shifted to a blue stick-figure drawing of a man hanging.

"Next phase, death penalty," she said.

On Hannity & Colmes, guest Geraldo Rivera said his experiences as a parent fueled his strong reaction to the case.

"You know, I've been in this business a long time, almost 40 years, and this is the case more than any other case that is so deeply upsetting to me," he said. "It really is the stuff of nightmares."

After describing Couey's crimes and some parts of the trial, Rivera suggested all sex offenders should have GPS chips implanted to pinpoint their whereabouts.

"The death penalty's really not enough for John Evander Couey," he said. "You want him to be stoned. You want him to be skinned. You want him to be cut up in little pieces."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309. John Frank can be reached jfrank@sptimes.com or 860-7312.