The jury, on a 10-2 vote, weren't swayed by pleas for mercy and a life sentence from defense lawyers based on claims that Couey, 48, is mentally retarded, suffers from chronic mental illness and has a long history of abuse and suffering.
Circuit Judge Richard Howard will give the jury's recommendation "great weight" when he considers whether to accept the death sentence in a few weeks. By law, Couey now gets an automatic appeal of the sentence.
The Lunsford family showed no emotion when the decision was read, nor did Couey, who spent much of the trial coloring.
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, later thanked the jury with tears in his eyes outside of the courthouse.
"This is justice for Jessie, but not just Jessie," Lunsford said. "I'm sure there are other victims out there. If you crossed paths with Couey and he hurt you, this is justice for you."
Prosecutors in their closing statement painted Couey, a convicted sex offender, as "evil" and asked the jury to find justice for the murdered girl by recommending the death sentence.
"If you could find one word to describe what John Couey did, and you could only use one word, it's the only one that comes close," chief assistant prosecutor Ric Ridgway said as he pointed to various pieces of evidence, pictures and charts to demonstrate Couey's actions the night in February of 2005 when he abducted Jessica.
"Jessica Lunsford was asleep in her bed … surrounded by her dolls and her stuffed animals, surrounded by her posters and drawings, surrounded by the love of her own family in the security of her own home and she was awoken to find him standing over her. She was taken from her home to a home across the street … She was sexually battered. She was put in this closet, where she huddled in this corner awaiting her fate. She was placed in these bags, she was placed in the ground and covered with dirt."
A Miami jury last week found Couey guilty of taking her out of her bedroom in the middle of the night in February 2005, raping her, covering her in garbage bags, then leaving her to die in a dirt hole in his backyard. The convicted sex offender lived about 150 yards from Jessica's family.
That same jury was released by the judge around 4 p.m. EDT Wednesday to begin deliberating whether Couey gets life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. A majority of jurors have to agree with the recommended punishment. Couey's fate, however, is ultimately up to Circuit Judge Richard Howard.
"If this is not the case that calls for the death penalty, what case does?" Ridgway asked. "If this is not the person who deserves the death penalty, who does? And if you will not recommend it now, when will you?"
But defense attorney Alan Fanter said Couey's is a "life worth saving."
"It's no question a terrible tragedy occurred in February 2005 but life and society want to throw away the life of someone who is mentally ill," Fanter said. "Life and society wasn't fair to Mr. Couey. Life in prison is punishment, it's the most severe punishment you can have short of death. …Don't compound this tragedy by throwing away the life of John Evander Couey. Give him the opportunity he never had, allow him to live and die in normal course, although in prison."
Ridgway pointed out to the jurors that Jessica poked two holes in the garbage bags she was wrapped in when she was left in the hole as she struggled to breathe before she died. Forensics experts had testified that she could have lived anywhere from 1.5 to eight minutes until she lost consciousness and died.
"That process that she was put through, the totality of those words, doesn't really describe" what she went through, he added.
Defense experts have testified that Couey is mentally impaired, suffers from longstanding mental illness and was a chronic drug and alcohol abuser. He was also abused by the boyfriend of his mother, who was 16 at the time he was born, they said. Defense lawyers are using these "mitigating" factors in an effort to save Couey from the death penalty and instead, get him sentenced to life in prison withouth the possibility of parole.
"This was not cold and calculated and premeditated, it was impulsive, which is consistent with the mental health assessments you heard," Fanter said in his closing argument.
Fanter said Couey's mental illness is like "throwing gas on the fire" to the abuse and neglect he suffered. He lived in at least four different homes before the age of 10, he said.
"What chance or hope did he have to survive?" Fanter asked, saying he was pushed along the system and had doors slammed in his face whenever he tried to seek help. "He didn't choose to be a pedophile, he didn't chose to have a mental illness, he didn't chose to be abused. As his body aged, his mind didn't catch up."
The cries for help from Couey, who has spent much of his time during the trial drawing pictures or working in coloring books in full view of jurors, were ignored throughout the years, and he was spurned by most around him, his lawyers maintained.
But mental health experts on Wednesday testified on behalf of prosecutors seeking to prove Couey was aware of what he was doing.
Forensic psychologist Harry McClaren, who evaluated Couey after his arrest in 2005, cast doubt on defense claims that Couey is mentally retarded. McClaren's remarks suggest Couey is able to adapt adequately despite any mental challenges, including a low IQ.
"In my opinion, he was able to function at a level higher than would be expected of a person with mental retardation," McClaren said. "In my opinion, his adaptive functioning is superior to that necessary to make a diagnosis of mental retardation."
A key factor in deciding retardation legally is the level of a person's "adaptive functioning," or day-to-day living capabilities. Mentally retarded people can't be executed under Florida law, according to a 2002 U.S Supreme Court decision.
McClaren rated Couey as average in ability to hold jobs and get through daily life.
"It's not reasonably established that this individual had an extreme mental or emotional disturbance," Ridgway said. "He's able to adapt his story as he needs to as the situation develops. Clearly there's adaptive function here."
During the opening of court proceedings Wednesday, Circuit Judge Richard Howard asked Couey if he wanted to testify. Couey said no, adding that he was satisfied with the testimony provided by his defense.
The jury has 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 jurors must be in favor of either life in prison or death.
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.
Couey's uncle testified that the boyfriend of the defendant's mother 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," said Sammy Harris.
"He lived a life you wouldn't want for yourself or anyone you know," Fanter said Tuesday, adding that Couey's IQ 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.
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.
"I wanted to testify. I think the best impact statement could come form the parents of a victim but that's not what they wanted," Mark Lunsford told reporters. "They were concerned about emotions and appeals, so they decided to not let me testify."
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. Previous arrests and prison sentences were also brought up.
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.