TAMPA — A state appeals court decision last week could spell trouble for prosecutors pursuing charges against Edward Covington, the former state prison guard accused of killing his girlfriend and her two children in a Lutz mobile home on Mother's Day in 2008.
The Hillsborough Public Defender's Office is arguing that it was improperly denied access to Covington for two full days after he was found hiding in the mobile home and taken into custody. The 2nd District Court of Appeal opinion, which will serve as a precedent for Hillsborough County, overturned the double-murder conviction of a Pasco County man under similar circumstances.
Covington, 41, was read his Miranda rights by a sheriff's deputy when he was found in his underwear in a closet at the home of Lisa Freiberg on the day after Mother's Day. Also in the mobile home were Freiberg's mutilated corpse and the dismembered bodies of her children, 7-year-old Zachary and Savannah, 2.
Over the next 48 hours, attorneys from the Public Defender's Office tried to meet with Covington at a Tampa hospital where he was being kept under guard by deputies. But only after Covington had been taken to the Sheriff's Office and confessed in a lengthy interrogation did detectives tell him that lawyers were trying to see him.
Defense lawyers are now asking a judge to suppress the confession, arguing that it was obtained in violation of Covington's due-process rights.
The Pasco case involves similar legal questions. Michael McAdams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of his wife, Lynda McAdams, and her boyfriend, William Ryan Andrews. Pasco deputies refused to tell him an attorney hired by his parents was trying to see him as he confessed to the murders, was arrested, and then led them to where he had buried the bodies.
While the appeals court found that McAdams' confession was legally obtained because he was not yet under arrest — and thus not entitled to an attorney — when he gave it, the court also ruled that the information about the bodies should be suppressed because McAdams was not informed about his lawyer.
"Any evidence collected after detectives read Mr. McAdams his Miranda rights until they told him about the attorney was collected in violation of Mr. McAdams' right to due process under the Florida Constitution," the court found.
At first glance, the case would seem to bolster the arguments of Covington's attorneys. Covington's confession was obtained after he had been read his Miranda rights by deputies who knew, but did not tell him, that lawyers wanted to see him.
However, the attorneys trying to see Covington were from the Public Defender's Office, and had not yet been appointed by a judge to represent him. Private attorneys, by contrast, can be hired by a suspect's relatives and don't have to wait for an official court appointment.
Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said that her office was still reviewing the McAdams ruling, but that defendants shouldn't be at a disadvantage simply because they are unable to afford private counsel.
"We're a government agency representing indigent people," she said. "Should they be treated differently?"
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office declined to comment. At court hearings, sheriff's deputies have asserted that Covington was not technically under arrest when the defense attorneys first tried to see him.
Circuit Judge William Fuente is scheduled to finish hearing pretrial testimony about Covington's statements this month, then rule on whether the confession will be admitted as evidence at Covington's trial in October.
Tampa defense attorney John Fitzgibbons, a former federal prosecutor, said he thinks the problem of suspects being denied access to lawyers is widespread.
"The police do back-flips to keep a lawyer from someone they want to talk to, because the police know a lawyer will tell someone not to make any statements," he said. "The problem is that in trying to keep a lawyer away from someone, police might jeopardize a case."
Peter Jamison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.