Prosecutors Want Death Penalty for Jessica Lunsford's Killer; Defense Says Couey Is Mentally Retarded

Jessica Lunsford's killer deserves the death penalty for taking the 9-year-old from her bedroom in the middle of the night, raping her, covering her in garbage bags, then leaving her to die in a dirt hole in his backyard, prosecutors argued Tuesday.

The same jury in Miami that last week found convicted sex offender John Evander Couey guilty of abducting, raping and murdering Jessica must now decide whether he should be executed for the crime. He faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutor Peter Magrino made his case for death to the jury Tuesday, saying that the circumstances surrounding the Florida pre-teen's death call for the maximum sentence.

"The murder of Jessica was a cold, calculated premeditated murder," Mangrino said. "She was put in not one, but two different garbage bags with her wrists bound together with speaker wire and with that stuffed dolphin that her father had gotten for her a week before."

He added: "I submit to you that cold, calculated, premeditated circumstance applies in this case."

Couey was found guilty by a jury of 12 last week of sexually assaulting Jessica and burying the third-grader alive in plastic trash bags. She had been snatched from her bedroom in February 2005, about 150 yards from the trailer where Couey had been living.

But Couey's lawyers, in arguing for life in prison, said that a "perfect storm" of circumstances — including his alleged reduced mental state and a harsh childhood full of abuse, neglect and poverty — made Couey what he is today and that he's not completely at fault. His cries for help were ignored throughout the years, and he was spurned by most around him, his lawyers maintained.

"He lived a life you wouldn't want for yourself or anyone you know," said defense attorney Alan Fanter, who added that Couey's IQ today is only 64. "As John's body got older, his mind didn't. He's sitting here, 48 years old, with the mind of a child."

An IQ level of 70 is generally considered retarded.

Florida law and a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibit execution of retarded people.

Jurors will make a recommendation to Circuit Judge Richard Howard, who must make the ultimate judgment. The jury will have to weigh the evidence of Couey's purported mental problems with aggravating factors such as Jessica's youth and vulnerability, the fact that a sexual crime preceded the murder and Couey's prior record. A majority of the 12 jurors must be in favor of either life in prison or death.

Couey has spent much of his time during the trial drawing pictures or working in coloring books in full view of jurors. Howard refused to stop Couey from coloring in court, saying that the activity calmed him, despite objections from prosecutors.

But prosecutors have pointed out that Couey is alert enough to know when to put his earpiece so he can listen in when the judge calls a sidebar between the lawyers. They've also pointed out that Couey reads newspapers daily in jail, uses the prison library and even reads law books.

Fanter said life in prison is enough for Couey, and that he will be a good inmate until his death.

"And at some point in time, Mr. Couey's going to die in prison," whether at the hand of another inmate, the government or by natural causes, Fanter said. "We do know, he will die in prison."

Normally, the victim's family members are encouraged to tell the judge and jury how the crime has impacted their lives. But Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, likely will not testify as part of the victim impact panel scheduled to take the stand Tuesday.

"I don't like it but there ain't nothing I can do about it," Mark Lunsford told reporters Tuesday.

It's believed the prosecution thinks Mark Lunsford may act in a way that could be grounds for a mistrial. During much of the trial, he has stared at Couey — whether he was on the stand, or in the visitor's rows of the courtroom.

A forensic pathologist who spoke for the prosecution Tuesday estimated that Jessica lived anywhere from one to eight minutes after the garbage bags were wrapped around her head and she was put in the dirt hole. He described how she would have died — as oxygen levels dropped, carbon dioxide levels increased, she eventually lost consciousness, then, at least a minute or so later, she would have suffered brain damage. The weight of the dirt on top of her would have compressed her chest, causing her to take in shallow breaths.

Teachers at Jessica's school also talked about how the investigation into her disappearance caused many students to be scared at school and at home, and even had many sleeping in their parents' rooms at night because they were afraid of the dark. The news of Jessica's death hit the entire community hard, they said.

"Just as a parent doesn't expect the death of their child to precede them, a teacher doesn't expect the death of their student to precede them," said Diane Hart, a teacher at the Homosassa, Fla., school Jessica attended. "Our children are not truly safe, no matter where we live."

Witnesses for the defense testified to the extent of Couey's abuse and mental state as a child, saying he was a victim of his stepfather's abuse and bullies at school. Couey's uncle testified that the stepfather even tried to drown the defendant as a child, and that he regularly had black and blue marks all over his body.

"Johnny was scared to death of that man," Sammy Harris, Couey's uncle, said.

Dr. Richard Carpenter, a forensic psychologist from Tampa, testified about the extent of Couey's mental retardation, saying that he was "very aware" and on the lookout for any attempts by Couey to fake retardation during the various tests he underwent. But he said he does not believe Couey was putting on an act.

To prove mental retardation, Couey's attorneys will have to show that the condition existed prior to age 18. That's why they brought forward relatives and other people from Couey's childhood who could attest to his reduced mental capacity then. Any previous arrests and prison sentences also will be brought up.

One psychological evaluation done by a state psychologist in 1978 after Couey was arrested for burglary at age 19, placed his IQ at 71 and his intelligence at "borderline." The evaluation also said Couey's reading ability was at a "special ed" level and that he needed therapy to develop "acceptable social behaviors."

Psychologist Robert Berland earlier testified that Couey suffers from mental illness, including hallucinations, and that he suffered a long-lasting head injury as a child when he was punished harshly for wetting a bed. Doctors also said Couey sniffed glue and gasoline fumes as a child, and used other various drugs and alcohol, which could have contributed to any brain defects.

"Those are not the actions of someone who does not understand the nature and consequences of his actions," Magrino said.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.