A Brave Judge Makes a Tough Call

Good for Citrus County (Fla.) Circuit Judge Richard Howard who earlier today decided that it was impossible to seat a fair and impartial jury in the capital case against John Couey, who is accused of kidnapping, raping, and then brutally murdering nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford last year. The judge now has ordered the high-profile trial to be moved again, this time even further away from Citrus County, Florida where the crime occurred.

Earlier, the judge had moved the case to neighboring Lake County to get away from the massive pre-trial publicity. But apparently Lake County wasn't far enough away from the epicenter of emotion. According to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, 11 jurors who already had been screened for pre-trial publicity told the judge this morning that they had seen media coverage of the case since Monday. And jurors who honestly told the court that they had heard of Couey's confession-- which was tossed out of case by the judge after he learned that investigators refused to stop their questioning of Couey when he asked for a lawyer-- automatically were disqualified. Now a new venue, in a new circuit in Florida, must be found and that will delay the start of the trial until at least this fall.

Judge Howard is likely to take a lot of heat from victims' rights groups for this decision but it's clearly a wise one and one that too few judges make these days. There is no reason to rush into a viscerally unfair trial just for the sake of completing it quickly. And sometimes jurors can't be asked to pretend to disregard all they have heard before about a suspect, a crime, a case and the like. All too often these days, in high-profile cases where media saturation is constant and complete, judges simply throw up their hands and allow people to serve as jurors so long as they promise to "keep an open mind." Would you want to be judged by that sort of a juror? Would you want a member of your family to be so judged?

This isn't about coddling Couey. He has nothing to do with what's happening now. And no matter where he gets tried he will almost certainly be convicted and sentenced to death. This is about finding a place where he gets a reasonably fair trial before a reasonably impartial and unbiased jury. Before you blast Judge Howard for being "soft" on Couey or "harsh" on Lunsford's family, just remember that he owes a duty to all of the litigants in the case and a responsibility to be true to the higher calling that requires the courts to give its protection even to those who seem to deserve it the least.

By Andrew Cohen |  July 13, 2006; 3:00 PM ET
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