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Archive for Thursday, March 8, 2007

Sex offender guilty in 9-year-old’s death

March 8, 2007

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— Two years after 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford was snatched from her bed, raped, buried in trash bags and left to die, a Miami-Dade County jury on Wednesday found John Evander Couey guilty of the crime.

Jurors will now have to decide whether Couey, 47, 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 Citrus County, but the trial was moved to Miami because pretrial media reports made it difficult to seat a jury in Central Florida.

During closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutor Peter Magrino took jurors through the crime, 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, he said.

Magrino once again showed the jury evidence presented at the trial, including Couey's mattress, where investigators said they found Jessica's blood.

As he spoke, a familiar 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."

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

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

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