TAMPA — Questions mounted Monday about the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's handling of a defendant in a triple-murder case in the days after his arrest, as doctors and nurses who treated the man described to a judge how lawyers were barred from visiting him at the hospital.
Defense attorneys for Edward Covington, a former state prison guard, are asking a judge to suppress his confession to the murders of 26-year-old Lisa Freiberg and her two children, 7-year-old Zachary and 2-year-old Savannah. Covington was found hiding in a Lutz mobile home amid the family's mutilated bodies the day after Mother's Day in 2008.
As Covington, now 41, was treated for a possible pill overdose over two days, attorneys from the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office were prevented from seeing him. They were finally given access to him after he had confessed to the killings. The Public Defender's Office now argues that the confession was obtained in violation of his constitutional right to counsel.
Hillsborough sheriff's officials have asserted that defense attorneys were kept away from Covington at the direction of hospital officials and that he had no right to a lawyer because he was not yet under arrest. But testimony from doctors and nurses at a pretrial hearing on Monday raised doubts about those claims.
Lynnette Frimmer, a nurse and supervisor at Florida Hospital Tampa — called University Community Hospital at the time of Covington's arrest — said that when Assistant Public Defender Charles Traina called her asking to visit Covington the night after he was admitted, she directed a staff member to ask the permission of the sheriff's deputies who were standing guard at his room.
A nurse in Covington's unit "came back to the phone and told me that the person in charge said that he is not receiving visitors at that time." That "person in charge," Frimmer testified, was Col. Gary Terry, head of the sheriff's investigative division.
Testifying in January, Terry, now retired, said hospital officials and not law enforcement called the shots on whom Covington could see. "The medical staff had told me he could have visitors if he requested them. He had not requested any visitors," Terry testified.
Covington was brought to the hospital immediately after deputies found him at the crime scene because he had overdosed on Tylenol and aspirin in what might have been an effort to commit suicide.
Were Covington not officially in police custody, the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a defense attorney would not have kicked in. Detectives have said he was not technically under arrest during his time at the hospital, even though he was under around-the-clock guard by at least two deputies.
That was not the impression of the medical professionals who came into contact with Covington, most of whom testified Monday that they understood Covington to be in police custody.
Melanie Wetmore, an emergency room nurse, recalled asking the deputies who brought Covington to the hospital whether he was in police custody. "They responded that yes, he was," she said.
Dr. Simon Roy Edginton, who was the first physician to examine Covington after he arrived in the emergency room, read from the notes he took at the time during his testimony Monday: "Patient presents in custody of police after apparent homicide."
Circuit Judge William Fuente's ruling on the admissibility of the confession will be pivotal for the direction of Covington's trial, scheduled to begin in October. The confession, while not the only evidence available to prosecutors, is central in the case.
A state appeals court last month reversed the double-murder conviction of a Pasco County man because investigators did not inform him that a lawyer was trying to see him, an opinion that could guide Fuente's decision.
More hospital employees are expected to testify today.
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.