MIAMI – A jury found convicted sex offender John Evander Couey guilty Wednesday of kidnapping and raping 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, verdicts that brought to an end a case that led to a nationwide crackdown on people convicted of sex crimes.
The charges against Couey prompted Florida and a number of other states to pass new laws cracking down on sex offenders and improve tracking of them, including a new U.S. Justice Department database.
Jurors deliberated about four hours before returning the verdict against Couey. The girl was snatched from her bedroom in 2005, about 150 yards from the trailer where Couey had been living.
Her body was found in a shallow hole, encased in two black plastic trash bags. She had been buried alive and suffocated, and was found clutching a purple stuffed dolphin. Two fingers poked through the top of the bags.
The jury next must decide whether Couey, 48, should get death by injection or life in prison.
Couey stood staring straight ahead and swaying slightly as the verdicts were read. Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, who has helped push efforts for tougher monitoring of sex offenders, showed no emotion and stared at Couey as the verdict was read.
Couey 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.
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.
In 1991, Couey was arrested 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.
But authorities had not known that Couey was living near the Lunsford home even though he was required to tell them he had moved.
The sentencing phase is to begin Tuesday. A psychologist testified for the defense that Couey has signs of mental illness and mental retardation, mitigating circumstances that could help spare him the death penalty.
Couey spent much of the trial drawing with colored pencils.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.