MIAMI – A judge on Monday denied another effort by defense lawyers to delay trial of a convicted sex offender charged with the 2005 abduction and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who died after she was buried alive during a frenzied search that drew international attention.
"The fact of the matter is, this case is going forward," said Circuit Judge Richard Howard, who denied a request for a delay by attorneys for defendant John Evander Couey.
A few minutes later, Howard began questioning prospective jurors about their knowledge of the heavily publicized case. Publicity forced the trial to be moved from Citrus County, where the crime occurred, to Miami.
Jury selection is expected to consume much of the week and the final panel of 12 jurors and six alternates will be sequestered in an effort to limit anything they might hear or read about the case. News organizations are barred from showing the faces of jurors or reporting their names.
Couey, 48, is charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual battery on a child younger than 12 and burglary. He faces the death penalty if convicted, with the trial expected to take as long as four weeks.
Couey attorney Dan Lewan has made several efforts to delay the trial and said again Monday that the defense team has not had adequate time to go through evidence released by prosecutors a month ago. Much of that evidence focuses on testimony by jail guards about incriminating statements Couey allegedly made.
"We cannot be ready at this time to go to trial," said Lewan, standing in front of a 15-inch stack of the new evidence.
Lewan also said he would file papers later Monday containing statements by two doctors that Couey is mentally retarded, which would prevent him from being executed if convicted. Howard, however, said that issue should be left until a possible penalty phase in the case.
A taped confession in which Couey acknowledged abducting Jessica on Feb. 23, 2005 from her Homosassa home, raping her and then burying her alive, was thrown out last summer by Howard. The judge ruled that Couey's rights were violated because two Citrus County detectives continued questioning him even after he requested a lawyer.
But prosecutors have the other statements Couey made while in custody and have DNA evidence from a bloody mattress found in Couey's room that matches Jessica.
In one of those statements, a jail guard quoted Couey as saying: "I didn't mean to kill her. I never saw myself as someone who could do something like this."
Couey, a registered sex offender, was living with his half-sister in a mobile home only a few hundred yards from the Lunsford house, but authorities didn't know that because he had not given them his new address as required. He was arrested on an unrelated warrant in Georgia in March 2005 after fleeing Florida when the search for Jessica intensified.
In response to the case, Florida and at least 18 other states passed laws toughening penalties on sex offenders involved with children and beefed up tracking requirements for convicted offenders. A federal law enacted last summer created the first-ever national program aimed at finding noncompliant offenders.