Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Court date set for Couey

By Dave Pieklik

A July 17 court date has been set to hear arguments about whether John Couey is mentally retarded, and, if not, to determine if he should be executed for killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa.

The hearings have been scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Citrus County Courthouse in Circuit Judge Ric Howard’s courtroom. The hearings follow the March 7 conviction in Miami of Couey, 48, on charges of premeditated murder, kidnapping, sexual battery and burglary.

The same 12-person jury decided a week later Couey should be sentenced to death by lethal injection for raping and burying alive the Homosassa Elementary School third-grader in February 2005. The conviction came after the Feb. 12 start of the trial at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, which led to several weeks of trying to find jurors who wouldn’t have problems being sequestered for possibly several weeks, or who hadn’t heard extensive details about the case.

Couey, a convicted sex offender, was accused of breaking into a mobile home Feb. 24, 2005, that Jessica shared with her family. Witnesses said he took her to his home, raped her, held her captive for a short time and killed her out of fear of getting caught.

Coverage of the case gained international attention and sparked the passage of tougher laws against sexual predators and offenders in Florida and numerous other states.

Eventually, a jury in the case was picked and testimony and closing arguments took just four days to complete. The jury’s recommendation of death by lethal injection set the stage for Howard to make a final determination as to an appropriate sentence.

Howard must decide between a death or life prison sentence; he must first determine if Couey suffers from a mental illness which, by state law, would prevent him from being executed. Two psychologists have evaluated Couey to determine his mental state, and depositions of them are being arranged.

A central claim of Couey’s defense attorneys at trial was that he suffered from mental illness and was mildly retarded. Jurors heard testimony from lone defense witness Dr. Robert Berland, a Tampa psychologist, who said Couey also suffered from psychological disturbance caused by brain injury.

Jurors were not convinced and returned the guilty verdict four hours after starting deliberations. During the penalty phase, the jury had to consider similar evidence when deciding if mitigating factors — reasons Couey shouldn’t be executed — outweighed reasons why execution was justified.

The jury took a little more than an hour to decide Couey should be sentenced to death.

At July’s hearings, if Howard determines Couey is not suffering from mental illness, a so-called Spencer hearing would be conducted. That hearing allows Howard to hear similar evidence and arguments presented to jurors before he makes a ruling.

A sentencing is expected to take place shortly after the Spencer hearing, though not the same day. If Howard agrees a death sentence is appropriate, the Florida Supreme Court would review an automatic appeal of the case that state law mandates.

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