Jessica Lunsford, Death of a 9-Year-Old
Trial and Sentencing
By Cora Van Olson
Couey's trial began in Miami on February 12, 2007. Evidence presented by the prosecution included DNA from Jessica's blood, Couey's semen on the mattress from his bedroom, and Jessica's fingerprints found inside a closet in the trailer.
Investigators and guards from the jail where Couey had been held before the trial testified that after his arrest Couey repeatedly admitted to details of the slaying and insisted that he had not meant to kill the third-grade girl but had panicked as police searched for her.
The defense called experts who testified to Couey's chronic drug and alcohol abuse, longstanding mental illness and his suffering a lifetime of emotional abuse. The defense argued that Couey's below-average IQ rendered him mentally handicapped, which according to a 2002 Supreme Court ruling would disqualify him from the death penalty. However the judge ruled that Couey's IQ results were more around 78, eight points higher than the standard score for mental retardation.
Couey mostly passed the time at trial drawing with colored pencils.
On March 7, the jury found Couey guilty of all charges relating to the death of Jessica Lunsford, including first degree murder, kidnapping, burglary, and sexual battery.
On August 11, a Miami jury voted 10 to 2 that Couey be eligible for the death sentence and, in accordance with Florida law, on August 24 a Florida circuit court judge heard arguments for and against Couey's receiving the death penalty.
Judge Richard Howard, who had to stop more than once to compose himself as he read a graphic description of the crime, ruled that the facts of the crime "vastly outweighed" mitigating arguments put forward by Couey's attorneys who, citing Couey's mental capacity, were requesting a sentence of life without the possibility of parole instead of death
According to the judge, "Sentencing is about a final accounting, it is a closure, it is a reckoning." He sentenced John Evander Couey to to die for the brutal 2005 rape and murder of Jessica Lunsford, only nine years old at the time of her murder.
After the hearing Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford took questions from reporters. When asked about the verdict he said, "I'm grateful that the outcome was what it was."
On September 30, 2009, John Evander Couey died in prison of natural causes. According to CNN, "A source close to the case told CNN that Couey's death was not unexpected and he had been ill for some time."
Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy called a news conference after hearing of Couey's death. Dawsy said that both he and Jessica's grandmother Ruthie Lunsford felt as though a 1,000-pound weight had been lifted from their shoulders. Mark Lunsford, he said, was on an emotional roller coaster because of Jessica's upcoming October 6 birthday.
Dawsy said that in addition to relief and satisfaction he felt disappointment, "There was true disappointment on my end that I couldn't be there when John Couey was put to death. That was always one of my goals -- to be there and watch him take his last breath." The cause of Couey's death has been kept confidential; but, when asked if he knew, Dawsy said he heard it was anal cancer, and said it was "fitting."