TAMPA — Given damning DNA evidence the defense didn't challenge, finding Kenneth Ray Jackson guilty of the 2007 rape and murder of a Seffner jogger was the easy part for a jury Thursday.
The hard part comes next week when the jury returns to vote on whether Jackson, 30, deserves the death penalty.
The jury deliberated two hours before convicting Jackson of attacking Cuc Thu Tran, 50, in September 2007. Tran had been among thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" who made their way to America after the Vietnam War. She worked six days a week giving manicures at a Brandon mall. A mother of three, she lived with her two youngest children in a small trailer. Her only time for jogging was before dawn.
Tran's bloodstained jogging clothes and sneakers were found Sept. 13, 2007, on a grassy berm at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on County Road 579 in Seffner. Her body was found in a stolen van set on fire in a field 14 miles away in Gibsonton. Her throat had been slashed.
The bloodied clothing "were the echoes of rape, the echoes of murder," Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon said Thursday in closing arguments.
But the most compelling evidence, Harmon said, was "the biological identity he left in her" — Jackson's DNA.
Jackson declined to testify Thursday and never confessed to detectives, but Harmon said the suspect's "gift of gab" left him unable to resist bragging in jail about his crimes.
The prosecution produced two former Hillsborough County jail inmates who said Jackson described the rape and murder in detail. Each had shared a jail pod with him — one in 2008, and the other in 2010.
They said Jackson told them he had frequently watched Tran jog. He lived just a hundred yards from her trailer in the Grand View Mobile Home Park.
They said Jackson described how he stole a van from an auto parts store parking lot, then accosted Tran as she ran by the church. It was about 5 a.m.
They said Jackson told them he made Tran strip her clothes off, then raped her at knifepoint. When she became hysterical, they said, he cut her throat.
According to the inmates, Jackson then loaded her body into the van and drove her to a field in Gibsonton, where he got stuck in the sand. Unable to move the van any farther, he set fire to it. He walked the 14 miles back to Seffner.
A break in the case came a few days later when a Seffner convenience store clerk said a customer named "Kenny" had described details of the murder that the Sheriff's Office hadn't made public.
By then, Jackson had moved to the Panhandle town of Carrabelle. Detectives tracked him there. He denied any knowledge of Tran but gave them a saliva DNA sample that matched DNA in semen recovered from Tran's body.
The DNA, prosecutor Harmon said, "was hard, cold science. Evidence doesn't get more absolute than DNA. Just that alone proves his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."
Jackson's defense attorney, Greg Hill, conceded that the DNA was Jackson's, but said the prosecution hadn't conclusively linked it to the murder. He offered Tran's estranged husband as a possible suspect, although the husband's DNA was tested, too, and no match was found.
In addition to the DNA and statements by the jail inmates and store clerk, the prosecution had surveillance video that placed Jackson at a Walmart near the church just before the attack. Witnesses also testified they saw him walking in Gibsonton after the van was set afire.
"It's a matter of evidence," Harmon told the jury. "He is a rapist and a murderer."
In the late afternoon Thursday, the jury convicted him of first-degree premeditated murder, armed sexual battery, theft of the van and arson.
Circuit Judge William Fuente told the jurors he would bring them back Thursday to hear arguments for and against the death penalty. Their vote needn't be unanimous and will serve only as a recommendation for the judge. But a tie vote or anything less would require the judge to sentence Jackson to life in prison.
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.