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Sex Offender Guilty in Fla. Girl's Death

Thursday, March 08, 2007

By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press Writer

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MIAMI — 

The sex offender convicted of kidnapping, raping and then killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by burying her alive behind his trailer could now face the death penalty.

Jurors deliberated for about four hours Wednesday before finding John Evander Couey guilty. They'll return Tuesday to consider whether he should face life in prison or death.

"With capital cases, I'm all for the death penalty. It's an eye for an eye," the girl's father, Mark Lunsford, said Thursday on CBS' "The Early Show."

Jessica was snatched from her central Florida bedroom in February 2005 about 150 yards from the trailer where Couey, 48, had been living. Her body was found in his yard a month later encased in two black plastic trash bags and buried in a shallow hole.

The little girl had been clutching a purple stuffed dolphin when she suffocated but had managed to poke two fingers through the bag.

Her disappearance led to a crackdown around the country on people convicted of sex crimes. Couey, a convicted sex offender, hadn't told authorities he was living near the Lunsford home even though he was required to do so.

In court Wednesday, Couey stared straight ahead and swayed slightly as the verdicts were read on charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery on a child, kidnapping and burglary. Lunsford, who has helped push efforts for tougher monitoring of sex offenders, showed no emotion.

Outside the courtroom, Lunsford said that he knew "justice would prevail" but that the case wouldn't be complete until the sentence was imposed.

Circuit Judge Richard Howard will ultimately decide Couey's sentence. He is not required to follow the jury's recommendation, but judges typically give the recommendation great legal weight.

A psychologist testified for the defense that Couey, who spent much of the trial drawing with colored pencils, has signs of mental illness and mental retardation _ mitigating circumstances that could help spare him the death penalty.

He admitted to investigators shortly after his arrest that he committed the crime, but the confession was thrown out because he did not have a lawyer present as he had requested.

"I felt confident that we had an overwhelming amount of facts we could present to the jury," said Brad King, chief prosecutor in the case, outside the courthouse after the verdict.

The evidence at trial included DNA from Jessica's blood and Couey's semen on a mattress in his bedroom, as well as Jessica's fingerprints in a closet in the trailer.

Jail guards and investigators testified that Couey repeatedly admitted details of the slaying after his arrest and that he insisted he had not meant to kill the third-grader but panicked as police searched for her.

Couey had previously been arrested in 1991 on a charge of fondling a child. In 1978, he was accused of grabbing a girl in her bedroom, placing his hand over her mouth and kissing her. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the case but paroled in 1980.

Jessica's killing prompted Florida and a number of other states to pass new laws cracking down on sex offenders and improve tracking of them through databases and satellite positioning devices.

Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, is now working with the group "Stop Child Predators," which advocates for stricter penalties and an integrated nationwide sex offender registry.

"I can't get my hands on the guy that murdered my daughter so I've made it my job to make the rest of these sexual offenders and predators' lives miserable, as miserable as I can," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.