Judge tosses statements in Lunsford case
Published: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 8, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
INVERNESS — Jurors at the murder trial of the man accused of kidnapping, raping and burying alive 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford will not hear certain statements he allegedly made about the slaying, a judge ruled Monday.
Circuit Judge Ric Howard said Orlando police detectives should not have been allowed to question John Evander Couey about a 1985 murder case because he had already told Citrus County authorities he wanted a lawyer — the same reason his taped confession to Jessica's slaying was thrown out in June.
"Mr. Couey had invoked his right to counsel and never reinitiated the interview or interrogation process," Howard wrote in his latest ruling.
The statements involve unrecorded comments Couey, 48, allegedly gave to Orlando police after he was arrested in March 2005 in Jessica's death. They asked the convicted sex offender about the unsolved 1985 murder of 15-year-old Regina Armstrong because Couey had grown up near Orlando.
Orlando Police Detective Joel Wright testified Friday that Couey told him: "I wish I could help you, but I can't … If I did it I would tell you, they can only kill me once."
Howard agreed with Assistant Public Defender Dan Lewan that the questioning violated Couey's right to an attorney and his right to remain silent. Prosecutors argued that those rights didn't apply to questioning in cases unrelated to Jessica's death.
Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgeway said he will not appeal the ruling.
"There is no such thing as an unimportant piece of evidence, but we were prepared to go to trial without it in July and we'll go to trial without it in January," Ridgeway said.
Lewan declined to comment.
Orlando detectives came forward with Couey's remarks on Jessica's slaying in July, after the confession was thrown out. In the confession to Citrus County sheriff's detectives, Couey had also told investigators where to find Jessica's body.
In June, Howard said not letting Couey talk to a lawyer was "a profound violation of one of the most bedrock principles of criminal law." But he said investigators would have found Jessica's 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 and another with a Citrus County jail guard Couey summoned to his cell. The conversations were not recorded, but a detective 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."
Ridgeway said they have enough evidence to go to trial. He has said that 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 in February 2005, Jessica's body was found with her hands tied with speaker wire and fingers poking through the garbage bags in which she was buried. The case sparked new laws that dramatically stiffened penalties for some sex offenders who target children, requiring lifetime electronic monitoring for others.
Couey has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery on a child, kidnapping and burglary in the girl's death. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
An initial attempt to hold Couey's trial in Lake County in July was abandoned after Howard found it difficult to find jurors who were not familiar with details of the case.
A final pretrial hearing in the case is set for Feb. 1. Couey's trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 12 with jury selection in Miami.
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