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Deputies' actions could jeopardize trial in grisly killings

TAMPA — On the morning of the day after Mother's Day in 2008, Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Juan Lazu stepped through the door of a mobile home on Mobile Villa Drive in Lutz. At his feet were the body parts of a dismembered child.

Staring at what he would later describe as the most horrifying crime scene of his career, Lazu saw two more mutilated bodies, belonging to an adult and another child. The corpses were those of Lisa Freiberg, 26, and her children, 2-year-old Savannah and 7-year-old Zachary.

Hiding in a closet, wearing only black underwear, his body covered in scratches and his feet wet with blood, was Freiberg's boyfriend. He seemed disoriented. "What's going on?" asked Edward Covington, a 35-year-old former state prison guard.

Deputies handcuffed Covington and led him out of the house. On the way, he casually stepped on Freiberg's body. Within two days, he had confessed to the murders, supplying what seemed like a sturdy foundation for an open-and-shut case.

Yet deputies' actions after their discovery of Covington — most significantly, their decision to bar defense attorneys from seeing him — may imperil the prosecution of one of the grisliest crimes in Hillsborough's recent history, according to newly released court documents.

The documents show that a high-stakes conflict took place between attorneys from the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, who asserted they had the right to visit Covington in the days after his arrest, and the Sheriff's Office. Deputies used a variety of legal pretexts to claim they could keep him isolated without legal advice.

The push-and-pull included a tense exchange in a waiting room of the hospital where Covington was being guarded and an emergency letter from Public Defender Julianne Holt to Sheriff David Gee and State Attorney Mark Ober. But only after Covington confessed did deputies tell him that lawyers from the Public Defender's Office had been trying to see him.

Covington's defense team is now arguing that law enforcement's decision to sequester him from attorneys — going so far as to register him under a false name at a hospital — violated his constitutional rights, and that his confession should be tossed.

Court records indicate the State Attorney's Office has marshaled other evidence against Covington, including DNA and the testimony of witnesses who observed him acting erratically in the weeks before the murders. But while the confession is not the only sign of guilt, its suppression could be a significant blow for prosecutors as they prepare for Covington's October trial.

The Sheriff's Office insists that the confession was valid, arguing that Covington was not yet officially arrested during the days he spent handcuffed to a hospital bed — meaning that the constitutional guarantee of a defense attorney didn't apply.

Public Defender Holt doesn't buy that argument and said Covington's treatment sets a dangerous precedent.

"You're entitled to an attorney as soon as you're in custody or under arrest," Holt said. "To deny that he was in custody is, I think, very foolish on their part. It flies in the face of common sense."

Attorneys turned away

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Covington, a bald, 6-foot-2 man who has gained significant weight during his nearly six years in jail.

Covington's attorneys have said he suffers from bipolar disorder and stopped taking his medication months before the murders, subjecting himself to uncontrollable rages. Toxicology reports also showed he was using cocaine on Mother's Day, the day the killings took place.

Concerns about mental illness and suicide emerged quickly after Covington was taken into custody on May 12, 2008.

Deputy Joseph Williams testified at a hearing last month that he read Covington his Miranda rights as he pulled him out of the closet at the crime scene. Another deputy put him in handcuffs.

"All the neighbors were up in arms," Williams said, describing a crowd that had gathered outside the mobile home. "I was afraid of a lynching."

Covington mumbled something about having swallowed a large number of pills, and a paramedic who examined him said he appeared "psychotic." He was taken to University Community Hospital (now Florida Hospital) in Tampa, where he was listed in the patient registry as "Allen Doe" and handcuffed to a bed, according to a motion by the Public Defender's Office. Deputies were stationed at his room.

In depositions and court testimony, law enforcement officials have said Covington was not under arrest then — despite the fact that a deputy had read him the Miranda warning — but "detained" as a person of interest while doctors evaluated him.

"We had two possible things — either an only witness to a crime or a suspect to a crime," retired homicide detective Donald Custer, lead investigator on the case at the time, testified last month.

On the evening of May 13, the day after Covington was taken into custody, two lawyers and an investigator from the Public Defender's Office showed up at the hospital. Deputies refused to let them into Covington's room or even to tell him they were there.

Retired sheriff's Col. Gary Terry, who in 2008 was head of the office's investigative division, testified last month that the refusal was simply a matter of hospital regulations.

"The medical staff had told me he could have visitors if he requested them," Terry said. "He had not requested any visitors."

'You're not a bad person'

The next day, Holt sent a letter to Sheriff Gee and Ober, the state attorney.

"Whether or not Mr. Covington has been formally 'arrested,' he is clearly in your custody, and upon your receipt of this letter I would request that you or your investigators inform him of my interest in him and my legal ability to tender advice to him," she wrote.

By then, detectives had already delivered Covington to a windowless interrogation room at the Sheriff's Office. Custer and another detective, Deputy Troy Morgan, began questioning him just before 11 a.m. The first few minutes of the interrogation were played in court last month.

"You're not a bad person," Morgan told Covington at the outset, as the suspect quietly sobbed. "You're a good person."

"We're not here to pass judgment on you," Custer chimed in. "We don't even know you."

Covington was distraught. "I'm afraid," he said hoarsely. "The pictures I'm seeing in my head are what's scaring me."

They did not tell Covington that lawyers were waiting to see him. They did ask him, in generic terms, if he wanted an attorney present. He said he did not.

Within two hours, detectives said, he had confessed to the three murders. When he had finished, Morgan told him that public defenders were at the Sheriff's Office waiting to see him.

"Do you want to talk to them?" Morgan asked.

Covington, aware now that lawyers were close at hand, didn't take long to think about it.

"I'll talk to them," he said.

'A no‑brainer'

Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon declined to discuss the circumstances of Covington's detention and confession in detail, saying the matter would be sorted out in court.

"There would be no malicious reason to withhold anybody from their attorney," McKinnon said.

A spokesman for the State Attorney's Office declined to comment. In a terse response to more than 100 pages of motions and exhibits filed by Covington's defense, prosecutors say there was no violation of Covington's constitutional rights and that the defense motion "is an incomplete recitation of the facts."

Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente will hear additional testimony and arguments on the matter in March. Afterward, he will make a ruling about whether the confession can be presented to a jury.

The right of somebody accused of a crime "to have the assistance of counsel for his defense" is enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

"It's a Sixth Amendment issue," said Tampa criminal defense lawyer Todd Foster, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent. "The question is, when does his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment attach?"

Foster, who is not involved in the Covington case, said he was inclined to agree with the Public Defender's Office that semantic distinctions over whether someone in custody has been formally "arrested" shouldn't bar attorneys from access to a suspect.

Jennifer Zedalis, a former public defender and director of the trial practice program at the University of Florida law school, said she thought sheriff's deputies at least had an obligation to tell Covington defense lawyers were trying to see him.

She said there's not much room to argue about whether Covington was under arrest in the two days after he was led out of the bloody Lutz mobile home in his underwear.

"He's handcuffed to his bed, and there are guards there?" She said. "That's a no-brainer."

Peter Jamison can be reached at or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Deputies' actions could jeopardize trial in grisly killings 02/21/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 21, 2014 11:26pm]
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