Interview with Mark Lunsford, the anguished father
By TIMES STAFF
Published February 9, 2007
After two years in the public spotlight, Mark Lunsford has polished his public persona. Speaking about his daughter Jessica’s murder, he’s calm, collected, on point: we have to arrest, convict and hand down stiff penalties to criminals who prey on our children. He’s careful to suppress his raw emotions – his physical exhaustion, his frustration with the legal system, what he’d really like to happen to his daughter’s accused murderer, John Couey.
But he sat down with the St. Petersburg Times three days before Couey’s trial begins in Miami, to talk about his personal crusade on his daughter’s behalf and his emotional state as the trial nears.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview. For a video segment of the interview, go to tampabay.com/couey.
What has life been life in the past two years since Jessica disappeared?
Not worth a damn. There are a lot of good things that have happened and become of it, but that doesn’t change life for a parent. Your life is just totally destroyed. It’s changed forever. It will never be the same. Your will never be the same. People will never understand you and they’ll never understand why you’re so angry, because they can go back to their normal lives and let it roll off. It never rolls off.
You’ve spent the last couple of years touring the nation campaigning for tougher laws for sex offenders. Based on your work, do you think children are safer today?
I believe based upon our work as a foundation, a community, not just as a community of Florida, but any state I go to, based on that, I think that it has helped save some children. But we have a very serious problem. It doesn’t just stop with molestation and murder. There is child slavery. There are all kind of horrible things going on. And people are working hard to try to make things maybe better…People have had enough – law enforcement, legislators, the people – we have had enough…We got to keep working harder. We always have to be trying to get one step ahead, because we’ll always be one step behind.
You sat through numerous court hearings in your daughter’s case and seen the legal system first hand. What is your impression of the legal system?
That’s how the system works. The judge is required to make the right decisions and be fair. And the prosecutor job is to prosecute and the public defender’s job is to defend. I think that everybody has been up to par on their job.
What are your feelings on the upcoming trial?
You just have to trust in the system. There is nothing else you can do. We can say if this, if that, if we want to. But fact is, if there’s a fifth of whiskey, we’d all be drunk. So we don’t have any choices. We just have to grit our teeth and see what is next.
You said you want to be in court as much as you can. Why is that important to you?
Because that was my daughter. Reading everything that I have read and being told everything that I have been told, it isn’t enough. As a parent you want to know what happened to your child. You want to know everything regardless of how hurtful it is. It’s a shame that parents have to go through this, but you just have to play the cards that you’re dealt. You can’t call a misdeal.
What do you expect to get out of the trial?
A lot of answers. I expect to get a lot of answers. I don’t know. I have never really understood closure. What is it, and just when does it happen.
What are the main questions on your mind?
Well, I think the questions in my mind will be answered when we go to trial. I think for me to voice my questions wouldn’t really be right.
If you do get the guilty verdict that you desired, how will that affect your nationwide crusade?
It will just make me work harder. You just have to focus all of your anger on something positive. There aint too many of us that have been able to do that. We’re all guilty of something. We usually get mad and show rage or something, but not this time. This isn’t about me or my family. This is about justice of a child. And I think the system will prevail.
At any point of the trial, do you plan on taking the stand? And if so, what do you plan on telling the jurors?
I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s kind of like going to a committee hearing and testifying. I don’t know who is going to be there, what they’re going to ask, or what I am going to tell them. It comes out when I get there. It comes from the heart. I ask God and Jessie for the right things to say, and that is what comes out. I have never wrote anything. So when I don’t have anything to say, I guess that I am done.
What is it like to see John Couey in court when you go to some of these hearings?
I really wouldn’t know how to describe it. If I had to explain it, I don’t think anyone would understand. But you just have to wait it out and see what happens.
There is the possibility that the verdict could come on the two-year anniversary of when Jessica disappeared, or close to it. What would that mean to you?
Well, I don’t think it really matters what day it happens on. As long as it happens.
There is a chance that you will get to testify in a sentencing hearing, if you do, and you get a chance not just to be in the same room but to speak to John Couey, what do you have to say to him?
I think my direction will be to speak to the judge and not to John Couey. Although, he’ll be there to hear it. And, it’s hard to tell. You don’t know what is going to happen until the day gets here. It’s like testifying. I don’t know what is going to happen or what I am going to say until the time comes.
But people have had enough. And I think that it’s time – I always said in the beginning that it was time to turn the tables. Instead of them stalking our children, we and stalk them. U.S. Marshalls. FBI. And instead of them being our kids worse nightmare, we become theirs. Prosecutors, we need you to work harder. If there is something you need to get more convictions, then you need to let a child advocate know so they can go to Tallahassee and pull for you. If judges need something, then let someone know so we can go up there and pull for you. You got a little girl in Jacksonville that was molested, and the guy got a year’s probation? You got a school teacher (in Tampa) where his peers are protecting him? We give our kids to the schools and you’re supposed to take care of them. You got them. And you let something like that happen, and you let it go? And it happens again? All of those people should have it shoved right down their throat, and none of them should work in the school system. There job was to protect our children, not their peers.
Do you have complete faith in our justice system, and describe what justice looks like for Jessie in particular.
Well, I won’t say Jessie in particular. But what justice looks like? It’s multi-colored, it has a lot of shapes and sizes, and we never know which way it’s going to go. We never know.
I think that we have the ability to make the right decisions and to hand down the right sentencing for whatever crime that it may be against a child. I think we have an obligation to really put down the hammer hard on people that hurt children. But as we have seen in the last two years – we have Jessie’s law – and we have had people who have been punished by it, but we still have people walking away. Our system isn’t still up to par. We’ll always been one step behind. But I have faith in Florida legislatures, and I believe that they will continue to make the changes. If they don’t, I will just go talk to Nancy Argenziano and we’ll just get everyone all fired up. Cause if I had to pick my favorite, that would be the first name to come out of my mouth. That woman will just not play with you when it comes to these kids. That woman will just not play with you. And she’s not the only one that feels that way. They only had one vote no against Jessie’s law. Florida had a big black eye and they’re determined to fix it. Our governor Charlie Crist, since he was attorney general, has made my confident that changes would be made and we would continue to fight. And even as governor he has told me the same thing. And Governor Bush, he said we’d make changes and we did. There are a lot of good people working hard and those that are slack-asses, we’ll just pick them out and get rid of them.