TAMPA — Kenneth Ray Jackson took Cuc Thu Tran's life in a near-caricature of mindless violence, raping and fatally stabbing the Seffner mother of three and dumping her body in a stolen van he set on fire.
On Wednesday morning, Jackson, 30, saw his own life ordered taken from him in a very different way — in a courtroom, quietly and calmly, with a guaranteed chance to dispute the 23-page legal explanation for why he should die.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente sentenced Jackson to death in Tran's 2007 murder on Wednesday, stating in a written ruling that the rape and murder were "shockingly evil" and "designed to and did inflict a high degree of pain" on the victim.
It was a long-awaited ruling in a case whose central question was less the guilt of Tran's killer than the correct punishment for a wildly violent man whose lawyers said was shaped by forces beyond his control.
Tran, a 50-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who worked six days a week giving manicures at a Brandon mall, was jogging before dawn in Seffner in September 2007. Jackson, lying in wait with a stolen van, accosted and raped her, slicing her throat to silence her screams, according to testimony at his trial.
He then deposited her body in the vehicle, which he set ablaze in a Gibsonton field.
After delivering a guilty verdict based on DNA evidence in October, the jury heard extensive testimony during the sentencing phase of the trial about what Jackson's defense attorneys described as a deeply unhappy childhood that turned him into a killer and sexual predator.
As a boy, according to his relatives, Jackson was encouraged to steal and began smoking marijuana at age 5. He might have been sexually abused by his grandmother's boyfriend.
Yolanda Leon, a clinical psychologist, testified that he was "an unstable person" who had "a chaotic environment and tortured existence during developmental years," according to Fuente's ruling.
But 11 of 12 jurors recommended the death penalty for Jackson in November. Fuente, while finding that his personal history "diminished Jackson's capacity or ability to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law," ruled that it was outweighed by aggravating circumstances, including the standard under state law that a crime be "heinous, atrocious or cruel" to warrant the death penalty.
Jackson, a pale man with a clean-shaven head and dark rings beneath his eyes, did not outwardly react to the judge's ruling.
His attorney, Assistant Public Defender Charles Traina, said his client would appeal the sentence, triggering mandatory review of the case by the Florida Supreme Court.
"I'm disappointed any time a death penalty sentence is handed down, and there will be an appeal," Traina said, describing himself as personally opposed to the death penalty in all cases.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Dale Bunten and Sgt. Troy Morgan, who both worked the case, were present in court Wednesday morning and welcomed the ruling.
"Whether somebody is a proponent for the death penalty or not, it met the criteria," Bunten said. "It was heinous, atrocious and cruel." Morgan said that Jackson "needed to be removed from society."
Unless Jackson's sentence is reversed in the appeals process, he will eventually be put to death by lethal injection. Death by electric chair is still legal in Florida, but inmates must choose it. No one ever has.
In the meantime, the boy who was once taken to a crisis center when his fifth-grade teacher observed him write "Kenny will die" will become the 405th person awaiting execution on Florida's death row.
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.