Man Found Guilty Of Murdering Florida Girl

Lunsford Lundsford Couey side by side AP

A sex offender was found guilty Wednesday of kidnapping and raping a 9-year-old girl and burying her alive in a case that led to a crackdown around the country on people convicted of sex crimes.

Jurors deliberated about four hours before returning the verdict against John Evander Couey in the slaying of Jessica Lunsford, who was snatched from her bedroom in February 2005 about 150 yards from the trailer where Couey had been living.

Her body was found in a shallow hole, encased in two black plastic trash bags. She had suffocated and was found clutching a purple stuffed dolphin.

Couey, 48, was found guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery on a child, kidnapping and burglary. The jury next must decide whether he should get death by injection or life in prison.

Couey stood staring straight ahead and swaying slightly as the verdicts were read. Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, who has helped push efforts for tougher monitoring of sex offenders, showed no emotion.

Outside the courtroom, Mark Lunsford said that he believed all along "that justice would prevail" in his daughter's murder but that the case wasn't complete until a sentence is imposed.

"This is only the first part. We've still got the second part," he said.

Circuit Judge Richard Howard will ultimately decide whether Couey should be sentenced to death. He is not required to follow the jury's recommendation, but judges give the recommendation great legal weight.

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

"I felt confident that we had an overwhelming amount of facts we could present to the jury," said Brad King, chief prosecutor in the case, outside the courthouse after the verdict.

The evidence at trial included DNA from Jessica's blood and Couey's semen on a mattress in his bedroom, as well as Jessica's fingerprints in a closet in the trailer.

Jail guards and investigators testified that Couey repeatedly admitted details of the slaying after his arrest and that he insisted he had not meant to kill the third-grader but panicked as police searched for her.

Couey had a record as a sex offender. In 1991, he was arrested on a charge of fondling a child. In 1978, he was accused of grabbing a girl in her bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her.

But authorities had not known that Couey was living near the Lunsford home even though he was required to tell them he had moved.

Jessica's killing prompted Florida and a number of other states to pass new laws cracking down on sex offenders and improve tracking of them through databases and satellite positioning devices.

Sentencing is to begin Tuesday. A psychologist testified for the defense that Couey has signs of mental illness and mental retardation, mitigating circumstances that could help spare him the death penalty.

Couey spent much of the trial drawing with colored pencils.

The trial was moved from Citrus County in central Florida to Miami because of intense local media coverage.
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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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