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Man convicted of killing 9-year-old Florida girl

Jurors will now decide whether John Couey should get death in the slaying of Jessica Lunsford.

March 08, 2007|Madeline Baro Diaz | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Two years after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was snatched from her bed, raped and buried alive, a Miami-Dade County jury on Wednesday found John Evander Couey guilty of the crimes.

Jurors will now decide whether Couey, 48, should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

During the trial, his attorneys called only one witness, a psychologist who said Couey is mentally ill and has mild mental incapacity, an argument they are expected to make next week in an attempt to save his life.

Sitting in a front-row bench in the courtroom, Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, did not celebrate the verdict. Instead, he braced himself for the next phase. "We're almost there," Lunsford told reporters outside the courthouse. "It ain't over yet."

Jurors found Couey guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, rape and burglary charges after hearing less than a week of testimony and deliberating for four hours.

Jessica was killed in Central Florida, but pretrial media reports made it difficult to seat a jury there, so the trial was moved to Miami.

During closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutor Peter Magrino took jurors through the crimes, reminding them Jessica's hands had been bound with speaker wire before she was buried alive. When police dug up her body in Couey's yard, two of her fingers were poking through the garbage bags she had been wrapped in, he said.

As he spoke, a picture of Jessica that was broadcast nationally during the three-week search for her, the smiling third-grader in a pink hat, was propped on the witness stand.

"She had a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness. She had a constitutional right to liberty, and she had a constitutional right to live," Magrino said. "That defendant right there took away her constitutional rights when he murdered her."

Prosecutors were not allowed to use a taped confession Couey, a convicted sex offender, made to police after they ignored his request for an attorney.

But jail guards testified that he confessed repeatedly to them about killing Jessica.

In his brief closing argument, defense attorney Daniel Lewan attacked their testimony, saying it came "from the media and their imaginations."

Lewan also said pressure on law enforcement to solve the high-profile case led to Couey's prosecution. He also questioned the process of collecting Jessica's DNA from her mouth.

"Don't be afraid to disregard what you don't trust," he told the jury.

In the penalty phase, which will begin Tuesday and is expected to last about a week, prosecutors will introduce evidence of aggravating factors that warrant a death sentence.

Defense attorneys are expected to introduce evidence of Couey's mental incapacity in an attempt to spare him from lethal injection. Couey worked on coloring books with colored pencils throughout jury selection and the trial.

Lunsford is divorced from Jessica's mother, Angela Bryant, and had custody of the girl. Bryant, who last saw Jessica four years before her death, was in court Wednesday.

After his daughter's death, Lunsford, a truck driver-turned-activist, lobbied for tougher laws targeting sex offenders.

He succeeded when Florida lawmakers passed the Jessica Lunsford Act, which is aimed at toughening penalties for sex offenders and making it harder for them to strike again.

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