tampabay.com

In the din, Jessica's voice is the one we yearn for

By GREG HAMILTON
Published February 24, 2006


One year ago this week, she was known only to her family, friends and neighbors. Just as it should be for a happy little girl living in a quiet mobile home neighborhood tucked away in a corner of a rural county.

Today, Jessica Lunsford is famous, for terrible reasons. She has become the poster child, literally, of a nationwide effort to shield children from adults bent on doing them harm.

Laws, foundations and playgrounds bear her name. Jessica is instantly familiar to people from the president on down. A family picture of her beaming face, eternally young and wreathed in a pink hat, is forever burned into our consciousness.

We have seen her photographs so much in the past 12 months since she was grabbed from the safety of her bedroom at night that somehow we believe that we know her. But, of course, we don't, and never will.

We have never even heard her voice. We have never heard Jessica laugh, or chatter about her friends in school. Or coo to her beloved dog, Corky.

But when we close our eyes at night and dare to think about her final moments, we can hear her. We can imagine her terrified sobbing as she struggles in absolute darkness to escape from the plastic trash bag she was stuffed into and buried 4 feet into the sandy soils of Homosassa.

We would have thanked the Lord above for the opportunity to dig through the dirt with our bare hands to reach her, to rescue her from that desperate grave and her demonic tormentor. We would have given anything to have been allowed to comfort her and to tell her that everything would be okay, she was safe now.

To see that beautiful smile.

Instead, we know Jessica only as a symbol. She represents our collective craving to wrap our children in protective cocoons and to punish those who would prey on them.

That fury right now is focused squarely on John Couey, a convicted sex offender and Jessica's sometimes neighbor, who stands accused of doing the unthinkable.

Evidence ranging from the physical to his own words points to Couey, after an evening of drinking and smoking crack cocaine, having slipped into Jessica's home and spirited her away while her grandparents slept nearby.

Couey has decribed to investigators how he escorted the sleepy girl from her house and over to his, getting her to climb through a window and into his bedroom. He talked calmly about how he abused her sexually and then made his arrangements to dispose of her.

The hundreds of pages in his court file go into excruciating detail about his actions that night and in the coming days; about his life leading up to that encounter; about the roles that others in his household played; about every aspect of this case.

The documents include plenty of fodder for the legal representatives to hash out in the trial, including the question of whether his confessions were legally sound. There are numerous side issues, such as whether his housemates knew what was going on inside their mobile home and could have prevented Jessica's death.

These and other matters have become grist for the local rumor mill and ill-informed television rabble-rousers and political opportunists. Everyone has an opinion, with those spouting the loudest being those with the least amount of knowledge of the case.

All of this is leading to Couey's day in court, tentatively set for this summer.

There, the case will get a full airing, with all of the documents parsed and the witnesses grilled. Everyone even remotely involved will get a chance to speak.

Except one person, the most important one. The beautiful child with the radiant smile.

We will never get to hear Jessica's voice.