Prosecutor Says John Couey Raped, Buried Jessica Lunsford Alive

Sex offender John Evander Couey stole 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford from her home, raped her, wrapped her in garbage bags, then left her alive in a dirt hole to suffocate to death, a prosecutor said Thursday during opening arguments in the case.

But Couey's defense attorney argued that he's innocent, that the state's case has too many holes in it, and that evidence the prosecution is using to point the finger at Couey was compromised. They also say the prosecution is taking advantage of Couey's "mental illness."

Opening statements began Thursday morning in the trial of Couey, the man police say abducted Jessica from her Citrus County, Fla., home in February of 2005, then took her to a nearby trailer, where he kept her for several weeks.

Prosecutor Ric Ridgway spoke to the jurors, telling them that although they may hear some inconsistencies — such as how Couey entered the Lunsford house without either of her grandparents or dog waking up — during the course of the trial, there are some things that are consistent.

Between Feb. 23 and 24 of 2005, Ridgway said, the Lunsford home was burglarized and the girl — known by family and friends as "Jessie" — was taken against her will, raped, given her purple stuffed dolphin, then put in a hole in the ground.

"She had been buried alive ... And there, in the dark, with only the dolphin, she suffocated. The evidence will show that the one man responsible for all of these acts is sitting right there," Ridgway said, pointing to Couey.

Couey's fingerprints were found on the garbage bags in which Jessica was wrapped and buried, Ridgway said. Her cause of death was asphyxiation, and the garbage bags were tied at the neck and at her feet. The type of wire used to tie the garbage bags were the same as those found in Couey's home, he added.

Ridgway noted that the medical examiner found only one cut on her body from which the blood found on a mattress that matched Jessica's could have originated.

"There was no way to account for the blood on the mattress except this one injury and that was a tear in the walls of her vagina, that she had been sexually battered," Ridgway said.

Couey is a 48-year-old prior sex offender and could get the death penalty if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.

During previous court proceedings, he has colored in a coloring book while sitting at the defense table. He had that coloring book with him again on Thursday, after the judge agreed to allow it in order to keep the defendant calm.

Family friend Sharon Armstrong testified that she took Jessica to church the evening of Feb. 23, then tutored her in math. Armstrong broke down on the stand when she explained how when she dropped Jessica off at home later that night, the girl turned and, in sign language, said 'I love you' as she entered the house. That was the last Armstrong saw the girl alive.

Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, took the stand, and stared at Couey for much of the 10 minutes or so he testified. Mark Lunsford said he kicked back to watch some TV after returning to the home the night of Feb. 23 after a long work day as a truck driver. But the next morning, when he went in to check in her, he realized there was something wrong.

"Her alarm was still going off, which was very unusual, so I opened up her bedroom door" and found she had vanished, Mark Lunsford said.

Jessica's grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, said nothing woke her, nor Corky the dog, which sleeps in her room, during the night of Feb. 23 when Jessica was taken. When Mark woke her the next morning to tell her Jessica was missing from her bedroom, the family noticed that a screen door to the home was cut. The stuffed purple dolphin Mark recently won for Jessica at a local fair was also missing.

Ridgway said that after Couey was arrested and placed in Citrus County jail, he told "bits of the story" to corrections officers. Defense attorneys, however, told jurors that Couey had no lawyer present when those statements took place, the conversations were never recorded and that he was coerced into talking.

"The guards used interrogation techniques, they put him in isolation, they controlled what he had, and what he didn't have. They played good cop, bad cop," defense attorney Dan Lewan said.

There was also not a mention of any "confession" or anything about the case entered into the log books kept by prison officials, he said. Word of these "confessions" Couey allegedly made didn't get out until last month — a year after he allegedly made them.

In laying out his case, Lewan instructed the jury to listen to the witness statements to pick up on holes in the prosecution's case.

For example, Lewan said, "interesting questions" such as how Jessica was taken from her house without either her grandparents or her dog waking up, will arise. Lewan also tried to raise doubt as to whether Couey could have physically carried out the crime.

Given that Couey is about 5-foot-4 and weighs about 120 pounds, Lewan said, "that is not much different than the size of the victim who was brought across the street to a trailer, where his sister lived, so the state says, where he took the victim, a stone's throw away. How does that happen?"

And how, Lewan asked, is it possible that Couey stashed Jessica in that trailer with three other adults present, for days without the police finding her. Police had searched the area around the trailer within hours after Jessica was reported missing. The "crime" scene, Lewan said, also was not preserved.

"Most importantly, we're going to show that to get those statement, they took advantage of John Couey's mental illness and they took advantage that John Couey is mentally retarded," Lewan said.

The jury, which was seated in Wednesday, includes six men and six women were chosen, along with three male alternates. Jurors were told to expect the trial to last two or three weeks. They will be sequestered at a Miami hotel.

The case was moved to Miami from Citrus County because of the heavy media coverage of the case in that area.