Judge Stops Couey Murder Trial, Says Jurors Tainted

Couey Murder Trial
TAVARES -

A judge on Thursday halted the murder trial of the man accused of killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford because of the difficulty finding jurors who hadn't been exposed to media reports or other discussions of the case.

John Evander Couey's taped admission that he killed the girl and other details have received widespread media coverage. That's an issue because Circuit Judge Ric Howard threw out the confession before the trial because investigators ignored Couey's requests to speak to an attorney during questioning.

Attorneys spent three days this week weeding out potential jurors who knew of news reports about the case. Howard had moved jury selection to Tavares in Lake County because of pervasive publicity in Citrus County, where the alleged crimes occurred and where Jessica's body was found in March 2005.

But Howard said Thursday the case has to be moved farther from away. It was not immediately clear where and when the trial will be held. Howard said it will be somewhere outside the judicial circuit that includes Citrus, Lake, Marion, Sumter and Hernando counties in central Florida.

State Attorney Brad King said the trial probably won't be rescheduled until sometime this fall. Couey's attorneys declined to comment.

'It's just part of the system,' King said. 'The system is set up and designed to make sure a fair trial is accomplished, and in this particular case that was going to be in question.'

Couey, 47, was charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery on a child, kidnapping and burglary. He has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say they are confident physical evidence and Couey's statements other than the confession will be enough to convict him and secure a death sentence.

During jury selection, any potential juror who mentioned the confession was immediately dismissed.

Attorneys' efforts to pick an impartial panel were further complicated Thursday morning when 11 more people who had already been screened for pretrial publicity admitted that they heard or saw something about the case since jury selection began Monday.

One man told reporters afterward that he had a dream about Jessica after he heard people at work talking about the case.

That left a pool of 46 for the second phase, when attorneys planned to question them about their attitudes on the death penalty and other topics. Howard then said he wanted to sequester the jury as soon as it was picked, which caused some potential jurors to voice concern.

King said that since jury selection was taking longer than expected, scheduling problems arose with some witnesses, which also contributed to Howard's decision to stop the trial.

Couey was staying at a mobile home near where Jessica lived in Homosassa. According to court records, Couey told investigators he took the girl from her room, raped her, swaddled her in garbage bags and buried her alive in the yard.

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