Video: Judge halts Couey jury selection

updated 7/13/2006 10:16:26 PM ET 2006-07-14T02:16:26

The judge halted jury selection Thursday in the trial of a sex offender accused of kidnapping 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford and burying her alive, saying it was difficult to find jurors who hadn’t been exposed to media reports or other discussions of the case.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard had already moved jury selection to Lake County, about 50 miles east of Homosassa, where Jessica lived and was killed, because of publicity surrounding the case.

On Thursday, after attorneys had spent three days trying to find jurors who hadn’t been exposed to news reports about the case, Howard declared they were still too close to find an impartial jury and said the case has to be moved farther away.

It wasn’t clear if Howard would shift only jury selection or move the entire trial outside the central Florida judicial circuit where the proceedings are currently unfolding.

State Attorney Brad King said the trial probably won’t be rescheduled until this fall. Attorneys for the defendant declined to comment.

John Evander Couey, 47, has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery on a child, kidnapping and burglary in the girl’s death.

Jessica’s body was found about a month after she disappeared from her home near the mobile home where Couey had been living. Her hands were tied with speaker wire and her fingers poked through the garbage bags in which authorities say she was buried alive.

Couey’s taped confession — which Howard recently ruled can’t be used at his trial — and other details of the case received national media coverage. According to court records, Couey told investigators he took the girl from her room, raped her, swaddled her in garbage bags and buried her in the yard.

Confession quashed on Miranda issue
The judge threw out the confession because investigators ignored Couey’s requests to speak to an attorney during questioning. Prosecutors say they are confident physical evidence and other statements Couey has made 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 when 11 more people who had already been screened for pretrial publicity admitted that they heard or seen something about the case since jury selection began Monday.

Jessica’s slaying sparked new laws requiring lifetime electronic monitoring from some sex offenders and significantly increased the penalties for others who target children.

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