TAVARES, Fla. – Most potential jurors said Monday they knew few details of last year's kidnapping and slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Citrus County or about her accused killer, John Evander Couey.
Most Lake County residents called to the courtroom as possible jurors for Couey's trial said they had heard of Jessica or recalled her disappearance in March 2005. But most professed knowing little about Couey or how he came to be charged with kidnapping, raping and killing her.
Lawyers began individual questioning of prospective jurors Monday about their exposure to publicity about the case and hardships. Jury selection for the trial was moved to Lake County, northwest of Orlando, because of pervasive publicity in Citrus County.
After a panel is picked, jurors will be bused to Citrus County for the trial, which could last several weeks.
Jessica's disappearance and slaying, which was chronicled by media nationwide, shocked and outraged Floridians and prompted new laws cracking down on sex offenders.
Couey is charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery on a child, kidnapping and burglary. He has pleaded not guilty.
Before beginning jury selection Monday, state Circuit Judge Ric Howard ruled that defense attorney Dan Lewan could not question Jessica's father, 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.
Jessica spent much of her life in Gaston County, N.C., before moving to Florida with her father.
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.
Several potential jurors who said they knew of the thrown-out confession were dismissed Monday.
Others who were dismissed said they believed Couey was guilty based on what they had seen in the media. Others still said they couldn't sit in judgment of someone who may have committed those crimes.
"I have children, and I couldn't handle it," one man said.
"I have a child, and it would very much bother me," a woman said through tears. "If anything happened to her I would die."
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 tracking after they are freed. At least 11 other states have followed suit.
Since Jessica's death, her father, Mark Lunsford, has become a somewhat reluctant but nationally recognized advocate for tougher legislation to keep track of convicted sex offenders.