Jury Search Begins In Girl-Slay Trial

John Couey listens to his defense attorney Dan Lewan, Thursday, July 6, 2006, in Inverness, Fla., during a pretrial conference at the Citrus County Courthouse. Couey is charged with the murder of Jessica Lunsford last year in Homosass, Fla. Jury selection for Couey's trial begins Monday. AP

Potential jurors were questioned for the first time Monday for the murder trial of a convicted sex offender accused of kidnapping, raping and burying alive 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who died by asphyxiation.

John Evander Couey, 47, appeared in court wearing a gray suit as officials began preliminary questioning of 284 potential jurors. Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, sat in court behind the prosecutors' table, across the courtroom from Couey, a former neighbor.

The girl's disappearance and the discovery of her body in March 2005 prompted tougher laws for sex offenders, shocked and outraged residents of rural Citrus County and was chronicled by news outlets nationwide.

Couey is charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery, kidnapping and burglary. He has pleaded not guilty, although investigators say he admitted to the crimes.

"She was still alive. I buried her alive. Like its stupid, but she,
so she suffered," Couey said on tape, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reported on The Early Show.

But just last week, the judge threw out Couey's taped confession. So prosecutors will now have to make their case without it, Strassmann reports. Instead, they'll rely on finding Jessica's body outside Couey's home and her DNA on a bloody mattress inside his home.

Prosecutors will seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

Before beginning jury selection, state Circuit Judge Ric Howard ruled that defense attorney Dan Lewan could not question Mark Lunsford about his finances or introduce evidence of pornography found in the delete bin of a computer in his home after his daughter disappeared.

Howard also said he would decide later on a motion by Lewan to keep the jury from seeing photographs of Jessica's body. Lewan said the photos are "difficult to look at" and would be prejudicial.

The state's job to convict Couey was made more difficult when Howard ruled June 30 that his taped confession could not be used as evidence in the trial because investigators had ignored his requests for an attorney.

Howard ruled, however, that prosecutors can still use the discovery of Jessica's body buried outside the mobile home where Couey had been living, as well as a bloody mattress from the mobile home that has Jessica's DNA on it.

Other incriminating statements he made later to investigators and a jail guard also can be used during the trial. Prosecutors say they are confident they have enough evidence to convict him.

Jessica was found March 19, 2005, buried with her stuffed dolphin behind the mobile home, which was across the street from her house in Homosassa. She had been kidnapped from her bedroom three weeks earlier. The day before her body was found, Couey had told investigators where to look.

The third-grader was alive when she was buried in garbage bags with her hands bound by speaker wire, an autopsy found. The medical examiner ruled she died of asphyxiation.

Outrage over Jessica's slaying prompted the Florida Legislature to pass a bill establishing a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life behind bars for people convicted of certain sex crimes against children 11 and younger, with lifetime tracking by global positioning satellite after they are freed. At least 11 other states have followed suit.
  • Chris Hawke

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