Couey confided in guards

The final witnesses for both sides testify, revealing new details in the death of Jessica Lunsford.

Published March 7, 2007

MIAMI - Heart-wrenching questions endured after Jessica Lunsford's death.

How was she taken from the house without a sound? Why were there so few signs of a struggle? How long was she trapped alive just steps from her own home?

In the final day of testimony in the case against John Couey, the unanswered were answered.

Today jurors are expected to begin deliberations as emotional testimony and grisly evidence give way to the measured process when six men and six women weigh the four charges against Couey: burglary, kidnapping, rape and murder.

"I think we proved every element of the four crimes in the indictment," a confident Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, said outside the courtroom Tuesday.

Prosecutors finished their case with the testimony of two investigators and three jail guards who reportedly heard Couey make incriminating statements about the 9-year-old's death.

The defense called just one witness, Brandon psychologist Dr. Robert Berland, to rebut the statements. Berland argued that Couey's mental illness, including hallucinations and delusional thinking, contributed to his unprovoked admissions to the guards.

But Berland acknowledged during cross-examination by Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway that the evidence "tends to suggest these are not false confessions."

Tucked inside those statements were new details about what happened the night Jessica was taken from her bedroom.

John Read, a Citrus County jail guard who became a self-described "father confessor" to Couey, said the defendant told him that he went to break in to Lunsford's mobile home and found the door open.

Acting on an impulse, Couey woke Jessica and urged her to come along by saying he "would take her to her father," Read said.

Mark Lunsford spent the night of Feb. 23, 2005, at a girlfriend's house. He arrived back home early the next morning to find his daughter missing.

Corrections officer Nathalia Windham testified that Couey told her that he buried Jessica alive in trash bags outside his mobile home.

"He told her he was going to take her home," Windham recalled from a conversation with Couey. After climbing out his bedroom window, "he told her to get in the plastic bag because he didn't want people seeing her go across the street."

She didn't explain why Jessica's wrists were tied together with speaker wire.

The guards testified that Couey told both of them that Jessica was hiding in his closet for three days before he "panicked" and buried her alive.

"He could not bring himself to directly kill her by his own hands," Read said.

Prosecutors established that Couey's story about that night was sometimes inconsistent. They have argued since the beginning that Couey raped and killed Jessica before daybreak on Feb. 24.

Earlier in the day, Medical Examiner Steven Cogswell testified he couldn't set an exact time of death, only that it occurred about three weeks before she was found March 18.

But he disclosed a previously unknown detail from the autopsy to support prosecutors' theory that Jessica was dead before she was reported missing.

Cogswell told jurors that he found an injury that likely resulted from sexual abuse, and medical evidence showed it occurred two to six hours before Jessica died.

For Mark Lunsford, the graphic testimony and the new revelations brought a mixture of emotions.

In the morning, he sat in the front row looking at pictures on his laptop and surfing his MySpace.com site.

He tensed when Citrus County sheriff's Detective Gary Atchison recalled his jailhouse conversation with Couey in October 2005.

"He was talking about religion," Atchison said. "He said he had to forgive himself before God could forgive him, and that someday he would see Jessica Lunsford in heaven and he would apologize to her."

Later, tears rolled down Lunsford's face when the guard testified that Couey had told Jessica he would take her home - moments before he covered her in a shallow grave.

"I knew some things, but some things I hadn't heard," he said later.

The fact the defense spent 32 minutes presenting its side says a lot about its case and its motives, said J. Larry Hart, a New Port Richey defense attorney not affiliated with the case.

The defense doesn't want to distract the jury with alternative theories, he said, but instead plant a seed for what could be the trial's next phase.

"They are focused on one point and one point alone," Hart said. "The mission here is to save this defendant's life."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 352 860-7312.

Tuesday in court

Prosecutors closed their case Tuesday with the testimony of investigators and jail guards who heard John Couey make incriminating statements in the death of Jessica Lunsford. Defense attorneys presented only one witness - a Brandon psychologist - and finished their case in 32 minutes.

SURPRISE: The medical examiner and jail guards put to rest a number of questions remaining from Jessica's disappearance and death in February 2005.

QUOTE: "He could not bring himself to directly kill her by his own hands." - John Read, a Citrus County jail guard, on why Couey buried Jessica alive.

WHAT'S NEXT: After closing arguments this morning, the six man and six woman jury will begin deliberating on the four charges against Couey.