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The Jessica Lunsford tragedy

Jury hears of Couey's own abuse

When the killer was a child, his stepfather beat him, family says.

Published March 14, 2007


MIAMI - John Couey is a cold, calculated killer who took Jessica Lunsford's young life and shattered a community's sense of innocence and isolation, prosecutors told jurors on Tuesday.

But defense attorneys contend that Couey suffers from mental illness and mild retardation. He is the product of a tumultuous, abusive upbringing compounded by years of untreated demons and drug abuse.

Jurors saw the competing portraits as they began to consider an appropriate punishment for the man they found guilty of kidnapping, raping and killing the 9-year-old Homosassa girl.

The 12-member panel could start deliberations as early as today. It can recommend death by lethal injection or life in prison.

It took prosecutors just 30 minutes to explain a number of aggravating factors that they believe warrant the death penalty. Two teachers from Jessica's school and the medical examiner were called to the stand.

Defense attorneys took longer as they laid out a laundry list of mitigating reasons to spare Couey's life. Three relatives and three doctors told jurors about Couey's rough childhood and mental defects.

Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway planned to call three medical experts to rebut the defense's case, including one who is not available until Thursday. But prosecutors may not present any more testimony, meaning deliberations could start today.

When the time comes, jurors will make a sentencing recommendation by majority vote. Circuit Judge Ric Howard will issue the ultimate decision of life or death during a hearing a month from now in Citrus County. He must give "great weight" to the jury's recommendation.

By midday Tuesday, the jury's demeanor implied that some members had heard enough. Many jurors who took notes during the guilt phase of the trial didn't even take out a pen this time. Others snoozed during a convoluted presentation from a doctor about Couey's positron emission tomography diagnosis, or PET scan.

Limited attention span

Prosecutors said the jury's limited attention span is a factor in considering whether to forgo rebuttal testimony today.

Assistant State Attorney Peter Magrino went right to the point in his opening statement. He reminded jurors of the circumstances surrounding Jessica's death - the trash bag coffin, the wire-bound wrists, the shallow grave.

"The murder of Jessica was heinous, atrocious and cruel," Magrino said, telling jurors any mitigating issues "pale in comparison with the aggravating factors that apply in this case."

Debra Harmon, a guidance counselor at Homosassa Elementary School, then described the effect of Jessica's death on the "sleepy and peaceful community" where Jessica grew up.

She read two sentences before she broke down crying about "details too gruesome to comprehend" and a "life cut so short."

Harmon and Diane Hart, Jessica's third-grade teacher, told of the terror that followed Jessica's disappearance and the discovery of her body, how children slept in their parents' bedrooms and refused to play outside because they were scared.

Sympathetic looks

Jurors responded with tears and sympathetic looks during the teachers' testimony and gasped as medical examiner Steven Cogswell told about how long it took Jessica to suffocate underground in the trash bags.

"A good estimate could be as short as one minute or two, or it could be as long as five minutes," he said.

Neither Mark Lunsford nor Jessica's grandparents testified. Prosecutors said they worried that any emotional testimony would prejudice the jury and make room for a defense appeal.

Lunsford said after court that he was disappointed. "I wanted to testify," he said. "I think the best impact statement would come from a parent of the victim."

Couey's defense team pleaded for the jury to give Couey life in prison, driving home the point that either way he will die behind bars. "There is nothing you can do to undue this terrible tragedy," Assistant Public Defender Alan Fanter said during his opening statement.

He told how Couey was born premature at seven months to a 16-year-old mother who didn't give him proper nutrition, and that he was raised in part by a stepfather who beat him black and blue when he was still a young child.

"A lot of things happened in Mr. Couey's life, and to Mr. Couey, that he had no control over," Fanter said.

Tales of abuse

Sammy Harris, Couey's uncle, and Linda Susan Arnett, Couey's cousin, confirmed for jurors the tales of abuse, from bullies on the bus to family members. The most notorious incident occurred when Couey wet the bed at age 6 or 7 and his stepfather, Bobby Lindsey, repeatedly slammed his head in a door as punishment.

Three doctors, all specialists in forensic psychology and mental development, testified that the bed wetting incident likely led to long-term brain damage. Joseph Wu, a psychiatrist from California hired by the defense, presented evidence that Couey has an asymmetry in his brain's frontal lobe that causes increased sexual tendencies and aggression.

He also linked the findings to Couey's low intelligence score, which Brandon forensic psychologist Robert Berland said qualifies him as mentally retarded.

The issue is an important one because in Florida mentally retarded defendants can't be put to death. A hearing is scheduled on the issue next month.

John Frank can be reached at or 352 860-7312.

[Last modified March 13, 2007, 23:19:53]

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