Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

JUSTICE FOR JESSICA

Verdict: John Couey is found guilty of murder and other charges. Sentencing: Life or death deliberations get under way Tuesday.

For two years, Mark Lunsford waited. He longed to hear the word "guilty" echo through a courtroom.

It was a painful journey. There were hearings, depositions, countless media interviews. Then came the trial here. Tears streamed down his face many times as prosecutors presented the grisly evidence about what John Couey did to his daughter, Jessica.

By 4:06 p.m. Wednesday, when Citrus County clerk Rhonda Franklin read the verdict aloud in Courtroom 4-1, Lunsford was drained.

One thought stayed in his mind:

"He ain't dead yet."

A jury of six men and six women found Couey guilty of first-degree murder, burglary, kidnapping and sexual battery.

The panel will reconvene Tuesday, consider more testimony and evidence, then recommend life in prison or the death penalty. The judge gets the final say.

The panel deliberated four hours. Many jurors appeared emotional as the verdict was announced and sneaked glances at Couey.

Wearing a navy pin-striped suit with blue shirt and red tie, Couey, 48, seemed aloof as he stood feebly for the verdict. He looked forward, pressing his fingers to the defense table and swaying gently.

Defense attorneys left the courtroom without commenting. Investigators and prosecutors exchanged hugs and handshakes.

The high-profile trial was moved 300 miles from the Homosassa crime scene to find an impartial jury. Prosecutors presented 68 pieces of evidence and called 22 witnesses that linked Couey through physical evidence and his own admissions to the death of 9-year-old Jessica.

The defense put just one psychologist on the stand to highlight Couey's mental illness.

In the end, the facts were on the prosecution's side, said Brad King, state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit. "I felt confident that we had an overwhelming amount of facts we could present to the jury and get the right verdict."

Welcome news in Homosassa

Many people following the trial in Homosassa, where Jessica lived with her father and his parents, welcomed Wednesday's news from Miami.

"The electric chair is too good for him," said Pete Peterson, 79.

Jeff Rogers, 35, a business owner, said: "Justice is burying him alive the same way Jessie was."

Powerful arguments

It was an emotional ordeal for the jurors, who endured hours of stomach-turning and heart-wrenching testimony.

In some cases, they cringed. Others gasped. And many wept.

Wednesday morning was no different as Assistant State Attorney Peter Magrino recounted the case in his 70-minute closing argument.

Reiterating a theme from the opening statement, the prosecutor told jurors that Feb. 23, 2005, was the last normal day in the Lunsford household.

Magrino went straight to the blown-up photo of Jessica wearing a floppy pink hat, the one that first evoked tears from jurors last week.

"This is a photo of Jessie in life, how she appeared in the evening" before she was reported missing, he said.

Summarizing the charges, he pointed to Couey and grabbed one of the graphic autopsy photos. "That is a photo of Jessie in death," he said.

Magrino then took jurors on a tour of the case, explaining how Couey broke into the Lunsford home in the middle of the night, took Jessica back to his nearby mobile home, raped her and buried her alive.

He showed how physical evidence like a bloodstained mattress and fingerprints in Couey's closet reinforced the incriminating statements Couey gave to investigators and jail guards.

He described Jessica as a "sweet, fun-loving, little girl" who was put in a closet and "terrorized."

Couey "preyed on Jessie," Magrino said. "He's not just a killer, he's a first-degree murderer."

After a short break, Assistant Public Defender Daniel Lewan gave a 17-minute closing argument. He challenged jurors to question everything about the case and consider his client's mental retardation.

"Think about this case," he said. "Is it a premeditated murder or the act of a depraved mind with no respect for human life?"

Lewan highlighted the numerous fingerprints and DNA found on the evidence that went untested and unverified, ostensibly questioning the role of Couey's housemates.

Noting the thin walls of a mobile home, he said, "No knowledge at all? Think about it."

He also criticized the police work, saying "they really didn't have a clue."

Under intense pressure from the media, he said, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office launched a "one-dimensional quest to get John Couey."

He left jurors with a number of unanswered questions, such as how Couey managed to get Jessica out of her home without any trace or sound and how he kept her in his mobile home for days.

"Why didn't she just walk home?" he asked. "Why didn't she just cry out when law enforcement was there?"

Later, Lewan drove home the point. "These are the question that leave the doubt," he told jurors. "If that doubt is reasonable, you need to consider that in your verdict."

A vivid finish

Magrino rose for a rebuttal argument with some passion, if not anger.

In previous days of testimony, prosecutors presented the evidence plainly. But with 20 minutes to make a final impression on the jurors, Magrino wasn't shy about theatrics.

To demonstrate Couey's actions the night he buried Jessica alive, Magrino pulled out a black trash bag from an unopened box.

He said nothing as he loudly rustled the bag open. Then he took a replica of the purple dolphin found in Jessica's arms and dropped it in the bag. Next went the pink hat photo of Jessica.

Magrino closed the bag and put another on top, just as Couey did with Jessica.

He put the bundle inside the frame of Couey's closet, which was sitting at the front of the courtroom.

This showed a "conscious effort and conscious thought" on Couey's part, Magrino said.

To finish his argument, he made one last plea for justice.

"Folks, Jessica has been dead for more than two years, but this defendant continues to live and breathe," he said. "I ask you to return a verdict that speaks the truth."

Afterward, outside the courthouse, the message stuck with Jessica's mother, Angela Bryant.

"I'm happy," she said on the verge of tears, "about Jessie getting her justice."

Times staff writer Eddy Ramirez contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7312.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement