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Jury recommends death for Couey

The final decision rests with a judge, but it's rare to ignore the jury.
Published Jul. 9, 2010

With images of Jessica Lunsford's dead body still seared in their minds, jurors deliberated for about an hour Wednesday before deciding that the 9-year-old girl's killer should die.

John Couey's attorneys asked for mercy, but jurors voted 10-2 in favor of the death penalty. As the clerk read the sentence, Couey didn't flinch.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard will make the final decision on the 48-year-old Couey's punishment in the next month, but he acknowledged it's rare for a judge to ignore a jury's recommendation.

Outside the courthouse, three jurors said it was a tough choice in an emotional and gruesome case that will stick with them forever. Two of the main factors that led them to recommend death: "obvious premeditation" and "the fact that she's 9 years old."

"It's not an easy decision ... it is a person's life," said Marvin Gunn, a 38-year-old commercial real estate agent.

For juror Thais Prado, who wore a gold cross around her neck, the images from the autopsy solidified her vote.

"Pictures of the victim, once she was recovered ... those are pictures that are very alive in my mind," the 20-year-old said. "The images are going to be very hard to forget, if I ever do."

Alternate juror Osvaldo Pradere, a 47-year-old father of two, said the case struck a nerve. "I will definitely hold (my children) close," he said. "It will change my life forever."

As jurors learned during the trial, Jessica's disappearance deeply affected a family and a community and brought national attention to the issues of missing children and child predators.

It took two years, but father Mark Lunsford, the truck driver turned crusader, said finally "this is justice for Jessie." The sentencing came just days shy of the anniversary of the unearthing of Jessica's body from a shallow grave and garbage bags just feet from Couey's residence in Homosassa in March 2005.

As the word "death" echoed through the wood-paneled courtroom, Lunsford closed his eyes and let out a huge sigh.

He voiced relief, but also anger. "We impose the death penalty in many states ... but it will never compare to the misery (the crime) causes the victims," he said outside the courtroom.

State Attorney Brad King asked for death from the beginning but echoed Lunsford's sentiment. "It's punishment ... (but) it can't heal," said the straight-edged former cop, with tears welling in his eyes.

Back in Citrus County, George Kanaris said he hoped for some type of closure for the Lunsfords.

"What that family has been through is horrible,'' said the owner of Emily's Restaurant in Homosassa, where Couey once worked. "But their peers came through for them, not only with the verdict, but with Jessica's Law as well.''

The Jessica Lunsford Act, which went into effect in September 2005, increased penalties for some sex crimes and strengthened reporting requirement for sex offenders, among other changes.

Earlier Wednesday, prosecutor Ric Ridgway used the harshest language to date to label Couey's crime as he laid out the reasons supporting capital punishment.

"Evil," he said. "If you can find one word that described what John Couey did, and you could only use one word, it's the only one that can come close."

It took Ridgway 28 minutes to recount the kidnapping, rape and murder of Jessica. He spoke mostly without notes, his voice cracking at times, seemingly under the gravity of what he was saying.

He listed six aggravating circumstances, among them the premeditated method of the murder and the cruel way Jessica died.

Ridgway said he couldn't refute that Couey endured a troubled childhood, but he challenged the defense's assertion that Couey suffered from mental retardation and illness.

He read a passage clipped from an old Reader's Digest about how people are defined by the choices they make, just as he does in every one of his sentencing hearings.

Then he left the jury with a question as they considered the death penalty. "If you will not recommend it now, when will you?" he asked. "This is the case. This is the man who deserves it."

Couey's defense attorney, Alan Fanter, then rose from his table, walked to the jury and said simply, "I'm here to tell you it's a life worth saving."

He agreed that Jessica's death was a tragedy, but not the one portrayed by prosecutors. "This was not cold, calculated and premeditated," he said. "It was impulsive."

Fanter then reviewed Couey's dysfunctional life: his 16-year-old mother, his birth defect and four homes in his first 10 years.

"What chance did he have to succeed? he asked. "He did not choose to be a pedophile; he did not choose to have a mental illness."

Appealing for mercy, he asked for life in prison, saying revenge is not justice. He listed the reasons to spare his life: the extreme mental disturbance, the mental impairment to know right from wrong, his drug and alcohol abuse, and his dismal childhood.

"Please look in your heart ... don't compound this tragedy by throwing away the life of John Couey," he pleaded. "Given the opportunities he never had, allow him to live and die in a normal course."

The jurors said they paid special attention to the issue of mental retardation and thought Couey's childhood helped explain the crime.

"I do have sympathy for him," juror Gunn said. "But it's a terrible crime. You don't know why someone would do that."

The two unidentified dissenting votes for death were the product of general uncertainly about some facets of the crime and how it was committed, jurors said.

As the three jurors walked away from the crowd of microphones outside the courthouse, Lunsford gave each the pink and blue bracelets that say "Jessica Lunsford Act." They took a group photo and hugged, shedding collective tears.

Times staff writers Elena Lesley and Jorge Sanchez contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at or (352) 860-7312.


What's next

-The jury's service is finished. The court will convene a status conference at 9 a.m. March 22 in Inverness.

-At some point the judge will hear additional testimony about Couey's mental state.

- The law requires the judge to give the jury's advisory sentence "great weight." The ultimate decision will be his.

- Actual sentencing will come later, back in Inverness.