Jurors convict Couey of murder

MIAMI - Convicted sex offender John Evander Couey was found guilty Wednesday of kidnapping, raping and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by burying her alive inside trash bags, a case that drew national attention to the problem of tracking sexual criminals.

Jurors deliberated about four hours before returning guilty verdicts on all charges. When the jury returns Tuesday for the sentencing phase, it will decide whether to recommend Mr. Couey, 48, be sentenced to death.

As the verdicts were read, Mr. Couey stood staring straight ahead and swayed slightly. Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, showed no emotion, nor did her grandparents, Ruth and Archie Lunsford.

Prosecutors cited overwhelming physical evidence and Mr. Couey's own admissions about committing the crime.

"She had a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness," prosecutor Peter Magrino told jurors in a closing statement. "That defendant right there took away her constitutional rights when he murdered her."

Evidence presented at trial included DNA from Jessica's blood and Mr. Couey's semen on a mattress in his room, plus Jessica's fingerprints in a nearby closet where she was allegedly hidden. Jail guards and investigators testified that Mr. Couey repeatedly admitted details of the slaying after his arrest, insisting that he hadn't meant to kill the third-grader but panicked during a nationally publicized police search.

Couey attorney Daniel Lewan, in a brief 15-minute closing statement, tried to shift the focus to unanswered questions, such as how Jessica was taken silently from her home and why analysis was not done on other fingerprints in Mr. Couey's room. He suggested that the police focus on Mr. Couey was driven by media and community pressure to solve the case.

"Don't be afraid to disregard what you don't trust," he said. "Use your logic and common sense."

Jessica's body was unearthed from a shallow hole about three weeks after she disappeared, encased in two black plastic trash bags. She died of suffocation and was found clutching a purple stuffed dolphin. Two fingers on her right hand were poking through the plastic.

Mr. Couey confessed to investigators shortly after his arrest, but that confession was thrown out because he did not have a lawyer present as he had requested.

Citrus County Circuit Judge Richard Howard will decide whether Mr. Couey should be sentenced to death. He is not required to follow the jury's recommendation.

Couey defense lawyers have already laid the groundwork for mitigating circumstances such as mental illness and mental retardation in an effort to spare him the death penalty. Whether by design or not, Mr. Couey spent much of the trial drawing and coloring with colored pencils while seated at the defense table.

Mr. Couey has a prior record as a sex offender. He was arrested in March 2005 in Augusta during a massive search for Jessica, who disappeared from her bedroom the night of Feb. 23, 2005, about 150 yards from the central Florida trailer where Mr. Couey had been living.

Jessica's killing led Florida and other states to pass new laws to crack down on sex offenders and improve tracking of them, including creation of a new U.S. Justice Department database. Authorities did not know Mr. Couey was living near the Lunsford home even though he was required to tell them he had moved.