Couey's confession in slaying thrown out

John Evander Couey, right, sits with Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter as they wait for Circuit Judge Ric Howard to make his ruling Friday in the Citrus County Courthouse in Inverness as to whether to allow Couey's confession to the kidnapping, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 30, 2006 at 11:55 p.m.
INVERNESS - A convicted sex offender's confession in the kidnapping, rape and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Marie Lunsford can't be used in court, a judge ruled Friday, but prosecutors said they still have enough evidence to move forward with the case.
John Evander Couey, 47, confessed to detectives in March 2005 and told them where to find the girl's body buried in his yard. But he wasn't allowed to consult a lawyer, as he repeatedly requested. His defense argued that violated his rights, so the confession and the recovery of the body shouldn't be admissible.
Circuit Judge Ric Howard threw out the confession to Citrus County sheriff's detectives because they didn't let him talk to a lawyer, which he called "a profound violation of one of the most bedrock principles of criminal law." But he said investigators would have found her body without the confession, so he allowed it as evidence.
Howard also allowed two exchanges in which Couey seems to admit guilt. One discussion is between two detectives and Couey while they pulled hair samples in October and another with a Citrus County jail guard Couey summoned to his cell. The conversations were not recorded, but one of the detectives and the guard said in depositions that Couey expressed remorse for what he had done.
Guard Kenneth Slanker said Couey told him: "I didn't mean to kill her. I never saw myself as someone who could do something like this."
Prosecutor Ric Ridgway said investigators had earlier found a bloody mattress at the mobile home where Couey was living that tested positive for Jessica's DNA. Also, disturbed ground near a shovel in the yard was suspicious enough after officers had already singled Couey out as a person of interest, he said.
About a month after she disappeared, Jessica's body was found with her hands tied with speaker wire and fingers poking through the garbage bags in which she was buried alive. The case sparked new laws that dramatically stiffened penalties for some sex offenders who target children, requiring lifetime electronic monitoring for others.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Couey, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of premeditated murder, burglary, kidnapping and sexual battery. Jury selection for his trial is expected to start July 10.
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, said the ruling didn't concern him: "I don't care - they're still going to get him."
Sheriff Jeff Dawsy told reporters the confession's elimination will not change the outcome of the trial and he had "enough evidence to put John Couey to death." He said the detectives did not do anything "maliciously" or "deliberately" to violate Couey's rights.
Ridgway also defended the deputies. "They may have been legally incorrect, but I'm not going to say they shouldn't have done it," he said. "If they'd have gotten him a lawyer and he'd never have talked, and she turned out to have been alive somewhere and wasn't found in time because of that, they would've been vilified here too. They were in a no-win situation."
But Howard said in issuing his ruling: "Such a police misconduct is not a mere technicality. A technicality is signing an order in the wrong color ink, or stapling a paper in the wrong corner or a police officer using the wrong batteries in his recorder."
Couey gave his confession in an Augusta, Ga., sheriff's office to two Citrus County detectives who traveled to interview him after an arrest on an unrelated Florida warrant.
He fled the Homosassa area where he and Lunsford lived after an intensifying search for the missing girl zeroed in on registered sex offenders.
The detectives, Scott Grace and Gary Atchison, have testified that Couey's mention of a lawyer was confusing because it came directly after Grace mentioned a polygraph test. They weren't sure if he wanted a lawyer immediately or for a later test, so they kept questioning after Couey said he would talk about "some things," Atchison testified.
Defense attorney Dan Lewan portrayed the detectives in court as coercive and overzealous. Couey was read Miranda rights and spoke at length for the first half of a two-and-a-half-hour interview played in court, but repeatedly mentioned wanting a lawyer when the topic crept closer to Lunsford.
Howard said Couey invoked his rights for counsel "no less than eight times in 46 seconds."
According to the transcript, some of Couey's comments to deputies in that exchange were: "I want a lawyer here present. I want to talk to a lawyer, 'cause, I mean, if people trying to accuse something I didn't do. I didn't do it" and "I just said I want to talk to a lawyer to get this thing straight."
Michael Seigel, a University of Florida Law professor who specializes in criminal law, said a taped confession was perhaps the strongest piece of evidence possible to try a case, but Couey's prosecutors could win without it.
"My sense is that they've got sufficient circumstantial evidence and forensic evidence, then whatever incriminating things he's said that the judge has allowed, that they think they can put together a winning case," he said.

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