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Jessie's killer gets death

John Couey was convicted in March of raping and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

By JOHN FRANK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 25, 2007


INVERNESS - Moments after John Couey received a death sentence Friday, deputies escorted him to a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom.

Inside, he met Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who led the investigation into Jessica Lunsford's murder.

He asked his deputies to leave the room. Then he was alone with the 49-year-old, meeting him face-to-face for the first time.

Dawsy asked Couey to forgo his appeals and expedite the execution. Couey didn't respond. His head bobbed and he looked at the ground. Dawsy asked him to look him in the eyes.

"It was cold," Dawsy said. "There was nothing there."

Dawsy said he felt compelled to tell Couey to "stand up and be a man" after reading earlier this week about Couey's jailhouse conversation with his aunt. In that recording, Couey deflected blame for Jessica's death onto others, and he said he was comforted knowing that a lot of good came out of the murder.

Dawsey told Couey that nothing good came out of the case.

"What has happened is that you killed a 9-year-old girl, you have dashed her dreams and hopes and her future," he said.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard, with his wife and daughter in the audience, told the packed courtroom that he hoped his sentence could bring closure to a brutal case.

"Sentencing is about a final accounting, it is a closure, it is a reckoning," he said.

Howard calmly read his 18-page ruling, recounting first the gruesome facts of the case. How Jessica, a third-grader from Homosassa, disappeared from her room in the middle of the night in February 2005, kidnapped by a sex offender living across the street. How Couey raped her, then buried her alive in a plastic garbage bag.

"This was a determined, albeit savage, murder," Howard said. "She was alive when he put her in the hole. She was alive when he began to shovel the dirt over her body.

"Her last thoughts ... cannot be fathomed."

Couey didn't flinch

Family members and friends in the courtroom sobbed as they relived the terror. "It never gets easier," Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, said later.

In making his decision, the judge found the murder was "cold, calculated and premeditated." He weighed the circumstances against mitigating factors argued by defense attorneys, including Couey's personality disorder, abusive childhood and good behavior in jail.

But in the end, the facts in favor of the death penalty "vastly outweigh" the arguments for life in prison without parole, he said.

Howard sentenced Couey to death for the murder of Jessica and gave him four consecutive life sentences on charges of burglary, kidnapping and sexual battery. His ruling matched the recommendation from a Miami jury in March, which voted 10 to 2 in favor of death by lethal injection.

As in Miami, Couey didn't flinch when he learned his fate. Sitting in a red jail uniform between his court-appointed attorneys, he looked down at the table expressionless. He told his aunt during the recorded conversation that he expected to receive the death penalty.

Is this closure?

The folks in the courtroom - strangers before Jessica's disappearance but a united family now - reacted calmly with sighs of relief and tears. An overflow room at the courthouse with 45 onlookers didn't hold back. They erupted into cheers and applause as the word "death" came across the closed-circuit television, much like many around the nation who watched live broadcasts.

"I'm just thrilled to death that it's over," said Archie Lunsford, Jessica's grandfather. "Going through the trial, it's been hard for me to contain my feelings, knowing what that little thing must have went through."

But at the same time, those close to the case confronted the reality that true closure could be years away. The average wait on death row in Florida is 12 years. Legal experts believe Couey's appeals could take even longer.

This is one step in the death penalty process, said State Attorney Brad King. "This is not the end of the road."

Outside the courtroom, Mark Lunsford continued to crusade for missing children nationwide in his final comments. Wearing a tie with Jessica's picture on it, he called on state lawmakers and the governor to "put an express lane in" for cases like this one. Victims shouldn't have to wait for justice, he said.

If he had a chance to confront Couey, Lunsford said, he would have asked him to "skip all these appeals and take your punishment. Be done with it. If you want to do something for her, give your life for the life you took."

Lunsford's harsh words revealed an undiminished inner anger, and his blurry eyes showed that more healing is needed.

For the last time, he left the courthouse and the microphones. Soon it began to rain.

Times staff writer Elena Lesley contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114.

"I asked God to let me live long enough to see John Couey die. I want to know that he died." Ruth Lunsford, 75

"She was alive when he put her in the hole. She was alive when he began to shovel the dirt over her body. His actions crushed the very breath and life out of Jessica Marie Lunsford." Judge Ric Howard

"He gets to sit and color and (Jessica) can't do that. Let's get this done quickly, so he doesn't get to color for very much longer." Phyllis Colucci, 67, of Inverness

"John Couey is an animal." Sheriff Jeff Dawsy

"You can't do anything to bring my daughter back. But you can do everything to save these other kids." Mark Lunsford

"This is one step in (the death penalty) process. This is not the end of the road." State Attorney Brad King

"God made a place for (Couey), and he's going there." Sharon Armstrong, who was close to Jessica

"I'm just thrilled to death that it's over. Going through the trial, it's been hard for me to contain my feelings, knowing what that little thing must have went through."

Archie Lunsford

Feb. 24, 2005: Jessica Lunsford is discovered missing from her Citrus County home at 6 a.m.

March 17, 2005: Investigators find suspect John Couey in Georgia; the next day he confesses to killing Jessica.

March 19, 2005: Citrus County investigators unearth Jessica's body behind Couey's residence; the next day he is charged with kidnapping, rape and murder.

April 21, 2006: A judge decides to get jury panel from outside Citrus County.

June 30, 2006: A judge throws out the confession Couey gave to investigators because they denied him an attorney.

July 10, 2006: Jury selection begins in Lake County but ends four days later in a mistrial because the jury pool was too biased.

Sept. 12, 2006: Judge moves Couey trial to Miami.

Feb. 12, 2007: Jury selection begins in Miami.

March 1, 2007: After three weeks of jury selection, trial begins.

March 7, 2007: Jury finds Couey guilty on all charges.

March 14, 2007: Jury panel votes 10-2 in favor of the death penalty.

Aug. 7, 2007: Judge determines Couey is not retarded and is eligible for death penalty.

Aug. 24, 2007: Judge sentences Couey to death.