TAMPA — A former prison guard accused of killing his girlfriend and dismembering her two children successfully begged a judge to let him skip most of a court hearing Monday, complaining that detectives' harrowing descriptions of the victims' remains might trouble his sleep.
"I don't want to be here at all," said Edward Covington, 41. "No, seriously. I am at a point where things in the past are no longer troubling me. I'm not having nightmares and I want to keep that as long as possible."
Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente expressed skepticism about the unusual request, warning Covington that he might forfeit opportunities to consult with his defense attorney about testimony against him.
But when Covington insisted, the judge allowed him to return to jail a mere three hours into the daylong evidentiary hearing in one of the goriest homicide cases in Hillsborough County's history.
The episode did not rest well with Barbara Freiberg, mother of the slain Lisa Freiberg and grandmother of Lisa's dead children, 2-year-old Savannah and 7-year-old Zachary.
"That's what made me mad," Freiberg told the Tampa Bay Times during a courtroom break. "He can finally sleep at night, and he doesn't want to get his nightmares back? Well, what about our nightmares? Our whole family is going to have nightmares for the rest of our lives."
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Covington, who is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of abuse of a human body.
Authorities say he dismembered the children and mutilated Lisa Freiberg's body. The family members had been beaten, choked and stabbed. One body was decapitated. Amid the blood in the family's home on S Mobile Villa Drive in Lutz, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies found Covington cowering in a closet.
The killings took place on Mother's Day in 2008.
"I don't know if there's one word that could cover it, but the closest I could come would be 'horrendous,' " retired sheriff's Deputy Donald Custer, the lead detective on the case, testified Monday. Sheriff David Gee said in 2008 that it was the grisliest crime scene he had ever seen.
Like many capital cases, Covington's has moved slowly through the court system since his arrest, stalled by extensive pretrial litigation and questions about the defendant's history of mental illness. Fuente said that he expects the trial to begin in October.
The latest sparring between prosecutors and defense attorneys is about due process issues surrounding Covington's arrest. His attorneys are asking that statements he gave to police after his arrest — including a detailed confession that hasn't been fully disclosed — should be thrown out because Covington was not initially allowed appropriate access to a lawyer.
Testimony on those issues is expected to continue today. Fuente is not expected to make a ruling until hearing from a final group of witnesses in March.
Covington worked as a corrections officer for the state of Florida until 2006.
While the hearings' outcome could help him, Covington clearly resented his trip to court Monday. Before testimony began in the morning, he could be heard griping to his attorney about the expectation that he be present.
A heavy, balding man with a week's worth of a beard similar to what he had when he was arrested, Covington is jowly and pale. Before the judge excused him from court, he glowered at the deputies who took the stand to talk about his arrest and shook his head at times as they spoke.
Covington's avoidance of the images connected to the murders is not new. In a portion of his video-recorded interrogation that was played in court Monday, he breaks down sobbing as detectives prepare to read him his Miranda rights.
"I'm afraid," Covington said in the 5-year-old video. "The pictures I'm seeing in my head is what's scaring me."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.