A convicted sex offender committed a calculated, horrific crime when he murdered 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by burying her alive, and he deserves a death sentence despite evidence of his mental problems, a state prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
“The murder of Jessica was a cold, calculated and premeditated murder,” prosecutor Peter Magrino said in opening statements in the penalty phase of John Evander Couey’s trial. “There are some cases, factually, that call out for the death penalty.”
The same jury that convicted Couey last week of abducting, raping and killing Jessica must now recommend by majority vote whether he deserves life in prison or death.
Jessica was abducted from her bedroom in the central Florida town of Homosassa in February 2005, leading to a massive search that drew worldwide attention. She was found three weeks later in a shallow grave, clutching a stuffed dolphin and encased in two black plastic garbage bags, outside the nearby trailer where Couey had been living.
The trial was moved from Citrus County to Miami because of media attention.
Defense: Couey has ‘mind of a child’
The jury must balance aggravating factors, such as Jessica’s youth and vulnerability and the gruesome nature of the crime, with mitigating factors such as evidence of Couey’s limited intelligence and chronic substance abuse.
Couey’s lawyers urged jurors to sentence him to life in prison, calling psychologists who testified that Couey’s IQ of 64 is below the generally accepted mental retardation level of 70. Florida law and a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibit execution of someone judged mentally retarded.
“John Couey sits here today a 48-year-old man with the mind of a child,” defense lawyer Alan Fanter said. “A lot of things happened in Mr. Couey’s life, and to Mr. Couey, that he had no control over.”
Couey also was born prematurely and suffered from a birth defect of “floppy ears” that caused him to be bullied and teased in school, Fanter said. He was shuttled between various relatives and never got adequate help for his mental difficulties, turning eventually to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, Fanter said.
Cousin says Couey attacked her as a girl
A cousin of Couey’s, Linda Arnett, said her mother taught him how to talk and that he was in special education classes in school.
“He was quite behind everyone else,” Arnett testified. “He just did not have the capability of learning like we did.”
But Magrino said those factors “pale in comparison with the aggravating factors that apply in this case.”
Arnett said Couey left their home when he was about 10 years old after she awoke on the family couch one night with Couey on top of her. Under cross-examination, Arnett said Couey was trying to remove her underwear.
“It startled me. I was scared. I was a little girl,” Arnett said.
Judge will make final decision
Jurors also heard Jessica’s third-grade teacher and a guidance counselor tearfully recount the fear and sorrow that followed the girl’s disappearance. Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, did not testify in the victim impact portion of the case.
The ultimate decision on Couey’s fate will be made by Circuit Judge Richard Howard, probably not for several weeks.
The teacher, Diane Hart, said students became afraid of dying and didn’t feel safe at school or in their homes.
“The community went through a rude awakening. Truly bad things can happen here, not just in the big cities,” she said.