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Editorial: Sheriff's actions on right to counsel troubling

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is unconvincing in its explanation of why it went to extraordinary lengths to keep a suspected killer from seeing an attorney and ignored his constitutional right to legal counsel. Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente will rule on the admissibility of Edward Covington's confession before he consulted a public defender, but the circumstances are troubling and should be independently reviewed.

A report by the Tampa Bay Times' Peter Jamison shows how the obstructive tactics by the Sheriff's Office are coming back to complicate the prosecution of one of the area's grisliest crimes. In May 2008, authorities found the mutilated bodies of 26-year-old Lisa Freiberg and her two children, ages 2 and 7, in a Lutz mobile home. Deputies found her boyfriend, Covington, hiding in a closet, disoriented and his feet wet with blood.

A deputy read Covington his Miranda rights while another handcuffed him. A paramedic who examined Covington said he appeared "psychotic." He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was registered under an alias and handcuffed to a bed, according to the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office. The next day, lawyers from the Public Defender's Office showed up at the hospital but deputies refused to let them into Covington's room or even to tell him the lawyers were there.

In depositions and testimony, authorities said Covington was not under arrest at the time but "detained" as a person of interest while doctors evaluated him. That doesn't answer why a deputy already had read Covington the Miranda warning, or why deputies were stationed at his hospital room, or why he was handcuffed to a bed and unable to leave. Two days after Covington was taken into custody, Public Defender Julianne Holt wrote Sheriff David Gee and State Attorney Mark Ober, informing them of her interest in providing Covington with legal advice. "Whether or not Mr. Covington (has) been formally 'arrested,' " she wrote, "he is clearly in your custody."

Covington clearly was in state custody, but it wasn't until after he provided detectives with a confession that officials told him that public defenders were at the Sheriff's Office waiting to see him. Playing word games over when Covington was arrested ignores that he had already lost his freedom of movement and communication. And as Holt noted, the right to counsel also carries an expectation that legal services be made available "as soon as feasible after custodial restraint."

Prosecutors said Covington's rights were not violated. Fuente will hear additional arguments in March. However he rules on the confession, the Sheriff's Office and prosecutors should ensure that officers comply with the spirit of this constitutional right. Anything less sets a dangerous precedent that jeopardizes both justice and public safety.

Editorial: Sheriff's actions on right to counsel troubling 02/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 6:04pm]
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