TAVARES, Fla. – A judge on Thursday halted the murder trial of a convicted sex offender accused of kidnapping, raping and burying alive a 9-year-old girl, who died by asphyxiation, because of the difficulty finding jurors who had not been exposed to media reports or other discussions of the case.
John Evander Couey's taped admission that he killed Jessica Lunsford and other details have received widespread media coverage. 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 somewhere outside the judicial circuit that includes counties in central Florida.
State Attorney Brad King said the trial probably will not be rescheduled until sometime this fall. Couey's attorneys declined to comment.
"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," King said.
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, did not respond to messages left on his cell phone Thursday.
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.