Reporter's Notebook: Jessica's Lunsford Family Finds Some Satisfaction in Couey Verdict

Jessica Lunsford was a nine-year-old American girl who loved her father, grandparents and friends. She liked Bratz dolls, and especially liked practicing sign language, the circle of adults around her all instilling lessons of compassion and love in the little Homassassa, Fla. citizen.

When the verdict was read in the trial for her murder, there was satisfaction felt in the courtroom, but it was not until court recessed that the first row, now filled with not only Jessie's father, but Citrus County Sheriff's office officials, attorneys and Jessica's mother and aunt, stood and embraced each other.

After spending two years in pursuit of their killer, law enforcement, attorneys and the family were now just beginning to feel relief.

"You should be proud" an emotional woman said, embracing a teary-eyed Det. Gary Atchison, the lead investigator from the Sheriff's office, and Brad King from the State's Attorney's office heartily shook Mark Lunsford's hands.

And when he walked down the front steps of Miami-Dade criminal court, Mark Lunsford walked directly over to the woman manning the hot-dog cart and wrapped his arms around her in a hug full of heart. The media flocked around the man whose burden and loss the public could only try ease by sharing in his triumph.

The jury rendered a guilty verdict on all four counts four hours after hearing closing statements.

It was State's exhibits 20-25, five photos depicting Jessica in death that caused sudden and sweeping hurt and pain when displayed to the jury, grown men shifting in their seats, women's faces turning red with tears.

During their last day of testimony the prosecution submitted a duplicate dolphin to the one Jessie's dad won for her at the fair.

In the fourth autopsy photo, Jessica is seen clutching the dolphin in the fetal position, it's shape fitting snuggly to her chest and almost as big as she is. The dolphin was the only thing missing from the Lunsford home when Jessie was abducted.

Mark Lunsford elected not to be present in the courtroom during Asst. State Attorney Pete Magrino's closing statements. He had sat through a consecutive series of unrelenting testimony and evidence grossly uncomfortable for any father to maintain composure for, including the mattress his daughter was raped on, and the closet she was held in. He also endured a confession that was thrown out, and a painstaking search and investigation that ultimately lead to Jessie's killer.

The nature of the crime elicted spontaneous raw emotion among a number of the courtroom participants. Bailiffs provided tissues at the metal detector, as there was no telling when the anger or sadness would bubble up.

But after a series of methodical and professional presentations and forensic testimony, it was a welcome change when Magrino re-addressed the jury noticeably moved as a result of the Defense's closing statements. Magrino started, "...And let me respond to a couple things.. Do you know why we are here?

"Because that's Jessica Lunsford when she was alive..." Magrino said while pointing to the famous billboard photo of Jessica in her pink hat.

"And States' 23 is Jessica when that defendant took her, raped her and buried her to die.. that's why we are here...." Magrino finished, emotionally walking Jessica's autopsy photo back in forth in front of the jury.

Media in compliance with a court order agreed not to videotape the gruesome photos.

The prosecution and defense each had 90 minutes allotted for their closing statements. The last word was given to the State (the burden of proof belongs to them), and in this case, they chose to sandwich their close around the defense, reserving time at the end.

In another high-emotion moment, Magrino took the cardboard photo of Jessica and proceeded to place it in garbage bags the size Jessica was buried in. He took care to bag, and re-bag the photo in the manner Jessica was found. The process took over a minute. "Does it take a conscious effort to tie the bags?" he said, reminding the jury that Jessica's death was not an accident.

Defender Dan Lewan had begun his closing argument stating "this system of justice is what we believe in ... and why we are all here."

He asked the jury to think long and hard about how Jessica could have been taken from the Lunsford home, and kept in Couey's sister's home without a single member in either household hearing anything. "What about the common sense of sounds ... movement in that trailer ... how could he have taken her outside and buried her without one of them knowing?"

Prosecutor Magrino responded that it is his belief Couey did not hold Jessica for 3 days in the closet as Couey had alledged. "I submit to you that he took her, raped her and buried her that same night ..."

By the end of his close, Pete Magrino made sure the point sunk in that Jessica's constitutional rights to happiness, to liberty, and to life had been taken from her — and he said while she had been dead for two years now, Mr. Couey "continues to live and breathe ... and he has been afforded his constitutional right to sit in this courtroom.

The jury deliberations were moved into a courtroom to accomodate the size of the evidence exhibits, and in order to play audio and video of interrogations submitted at trial. They found the defendant guilty on all four counts: murder in the first degree, burglary of a dwelling with battery, kidnapping, and sexual assault of a minor under the age of 12.

The judge has allowed the jury for a semi-sequestration over the weekend before the penalty phase begins on Tuesday.

John Evander Couey could face life imprisonment or death by lethal injection.