Jury: Couey Killed Lunsford

Jessica Lunsford and John Couey
MIAMI -

Convicted sex offender John Evander Couey was found guilty Wednesday of kidnapping, raping and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by burying her alive inside trash bags, a case that drew national attention to the problem of tracking sexual criminals.

Jurors deliberated about four hours before returning guilty verdicts on all charges. During the sentencing phase, which begins Tuesday, the jury next must decide to recommend whether Couey, 48, should be sentenced to death.

As the verdicts were read, Couey stood staring straight ahead and swayed slightly. Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, showed no emotion, nor did her grandparents, Ruth and Archie Lunsford.

Prosecutors cited overwhelming physical evidence and Couey's own admissions about committing the crime as decisive reasons to convict him in Jessica's death.

'She had a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness,' prosecutor Peter Magrino told jurors in a closing statement as Couey looked on. 'That defendant right there took away her constitutional rights when he murdered her.'

Evidence presented at trial included DNA from Jessica's blood and Couey's semen on a mattress in his room as well as Jessica's fingerprints in a nearby closet where she was allegedly hidden. Jail guards and investigators testified that Couey repeatedly admitted details of the slaying after his arrest, insisting that he hadn't meant to kill the third-grader but panicked during an intense, nationally publicized police search.

Couey attorney Daniel Lewan, in a brief 15-minute closing statement, sought to shift the focus to unanswered questions such as how Jessica was taken silently from her home and why analysis was not done on other fingerprints in Couey's room. He suggested that the police focus on Couey was driven by media and community pressure to solve the case.

'Don't be afraid to disregard what you don't trust,' Lewan said. 'Use your logic and common sense.'

Jessica's body was unearthed from a shallow hole about three weeks after she disappeared, encased in two black plastic trash bags. She died of suffocation and was found clutching a purple stuffed dolphin. Two fingers on her right had were poking through the plastic.

Couey confessed to investigators shortly after his arrest that he committed the crime, but that confession was thrown out because he did not have a lawyer present as he had requested.

Citrus County Circuit Judge Richard Howard will ultimately decide whether Couey should be sentenced to death. He is not required to follow the jury's recommendation, but judges give the recommendation great legal weight.

Couey defense lawyers have already laid the groundwork for mitigating circumstances such as mental illness and mental retardation in an effort to spare him the death penalty. Whether by design or not, Couey spent much of the trial drawing and coloring with colored pencils while seated at the defense table.

The trial was moved from Citrus County in central Florida to Miami because of intense local media coverage.

Couey has a prior record as a sex offender. He was arrested in March 2005 in Georgia during a massive search for Jessica, who had disappeared from her bedroom about 150 yards from the central Florida trailer where Couey had been living the night of Feb. 23, 2005.

Couey's criminal record includes 24 arrests for burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, indecent exposure and other offenses. In 1991, he was arrested in Kissimmee on a charge of fondling a child under age 16. Records don't show how the case was resolved.

During a house burglary in 1978, he was accused of grabbing a girl in her bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy said in 2005. Couey was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was paroled in 1980, a time when inmates were serving a small fraction of their sentences.

Jessica's killing prompted Florida and a number of other states to pass new laws to crack down on sex offenders and improve tracking of them, including creation of a new U.S. Justice Department database. Authorities did not know that Couey was living near the Lunsford home even though he was required to tell them he had moved.

The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved Gov. Charlie Crist's so-called Anti-murder Act, which was partially prompted by Jessica's death. The bill would require certain probation violators who have previously committed violent acts to be held in county jails until a judge holds a 'danger to the community' hearing.

'My thoughts and prayers are with my friend Mark Lunsford and his family,' Crist said. 'We saw our justice system at work today as John Couey was convicted for his heinous crimes against one of Florida's children. This verdict is one step closer to justice for Jessica Lunsford and so many others who were taken too early in their lives.'

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