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Judge: Lutz triple murder defendant did not have rights violated

TAMPA — Jurors in the upcoming trial of former prison guard Edward Covington will be allowed to hear his confession to murdering his girlfriend and her two children in 2008, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge William Fuente ruled on Wednesday.

Despite the protests of Covington's attorneys, who said he was denied access to a lawyer for two full days after he was taken into custody, Fuente found that sheriff's deputies had not violated Covington's rights. Rather, the judge wrote, there was no evidence that Covington, or any of his family members, had ever asked for a lawyer. And although lawyers from the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office tried to visit him in the hospital, the sheriff's deputies guarding his room had no legal obligation to let them in.

Covington's attorneys would not say Wednesday whether they planned to appeal the decision. His trial, in which prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty, is scheduled to begin Oct. 13.

Covington, 42, was found in May 2008 standing in a bedroom closet in his girlfriend's mobile home in Lutz, wearing nothing but underwear and covered in scratches and blood. Nearby were the mutilated bodies of his girlfriend, Lisa Freiberg, and her two young children. Dog food had been poured into Freiberg's wounds.

Sheriff's deputies handcuffed Covington, read him his Miranda rights and placed him in the back of a patrol car. They were driving him to be interviewed when he announced he had swallowed more than a hundred pills, so the deputies instead headed to University Community Hospital in Tampa.

There, over the next two days, public defenders tried to meet with him but were rebuffed by sheriff's deputies under orders not to allow anyone in to see him. Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt wrote a letter to sheriff's officials asking to be granted access, to no avail. No one but doctors and law enforcement officials could enter or leave the room, they were told, including Covington, who was being held under the Baker Act.

In a motion filed in September, assistant Public Defender Theda James wrote that Covington asked for a lawyer and was ignored. He was never told there were attorneys waiting to meet with him.

"It was not until after Mr. Covington had given a full confession to law enforcement that he was advised of the Public Defender's attempt to speak with him," James wrote. "These actions constitute a violation of due process of law and equal protection of the law."

In court documents, prosecutors said Covington had never requested to see a lawyer while he was hospitalized, and he was not formally under arrest, only detained. The security detail and no visitors policy were requested by hospital officials, they said, not law enforcement.

Earlier this year, a state appeals court took up a Pasco County case involving similar legal questions and decided in favor of the defendant. In the Pasco case, Michael McAdams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife and her boyfriend. Pasco sheriff's deputies had refused to tell McAdams that an attorney hired by his parents was trying to see him as he confessed to the murders and was arrested.