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A judge decides the killer is not retarded.

Jessica Lunsford's killer is one step closer to a death sentence after a Citrus County judge ruled late Tuesday that John Couey is not mentally retarded.

Defense attorneys for the 48-year-old sex offender tried to get his life spared by arguing that Couey possessed a diminished mental capacity and suffered extensive abuse that led to below-normal functioning.

But Circuit Judge Ric Howard, in a sharply worded ruling, dismissed those arguments, finding the most credible test of Couey's IQ produced a score of 78 - well above the 70 cutoff for retardation under state law.

"The conclusion is inescapable and irrefutable that the defendant John Evander Couey is not retarded by any legal or societal standard," Howard wrote in his 16-page ruling obtained exclusively by the St. Petersburg Times.

In March, a Miami jury recommended death by lethal injection after finding Couey guilty of kidnapping, raping and killing the 9-year-old Homosassa girl in February 2005. The grisly nature of the case attracted global attention and brought about sweeping changes to sexual offender laws across the nation.

If Couey were found retarded, state law would prevent the death penalty, leaving only the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Howard is scheduled to sentence Couey on Aug. 24. The judge's evaluation of the case in the ruling seems to indicate that mercy is doubtful.

Howard, in his first comments about the facts of the case, wrote that Couey's deeds "are far from simple acts" and that they showed a deliberate attempt to commit the crime and hide his involvement.

"The defendant stealthily entered the Lunsford family home and kidnapped Jessica; all without alarm or outcry. ... When the police were searching for Jessica, he planned her murder and carried it out. ...

"He buried her body to hide it," Howard continued. "He even had his niece purchase a bus ticket because he had no photo identification; this in an attempt to avoid detection. A person who is mentally retarded simply could not have planned such a sophisticated crime, and escape."

Prosecutor Ric Ridgway said he won't read into the judge's wording for clues about the sentencing, but argues strongly that death is appropriate in this case.

Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, said he expected Howard would deny Couey's mental retardation claim. He believes Couey deserves a death sentence.

"It was cold-blooded murder and for that you should pay the ultimate price," Lunsford said.

In reaching his decision, Howard went through all the expert testimony. He relied heavily on psychologist Gregory Pritchard's statements from a July 17 hearing when the court-appointed expert analyzed Couey's cognitive abilities.

Howard said Pritchard's exam was the most credible of the experts who testified. The judge also implied that Couey faked the test given by defense expert Richard Carpenter, a forensic psychologist. That exam put Couey's IQ at 64, a score that would have spared him a death sentence.

When it came to adaptive behavior, or Couey's ability to function in life, the judge pointed to evidence from family members, co-workers and jail guards that suggested Couey had excellent hygiene, followed instructions, filled out job applications and read the Bible.

John Frank can be reached at or (352) 754-6114.