Judge Sentences John Couey to Death for Murdering Jessica Lunsford

A Florida judge sentenced John Evander Couey to death Friday for the kidnap, rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

Couey, a convicted sex offender, buried Lunsford alive in two black trash bags with her hands bound and her favorite purple stuffed dolphin tucked in her arms, Circuit Judge Richard Howard said. Lunsford's body was found in a grave in Couey's yard about three weeks after she disappeared.

"He secured her fate with a second bag," Howard told the court.

Howard called the murder "cold and calculated," causing a "slow, suffering and conscious death."

Couey, appearing in a red jumpsuit sitting between his attorneys, looked straight ahead when Howard read the sentence.

Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, cried off and on when taking questions from reporters after the hearing.

“I’m grateful that the outcome was what it was,” Lunsford said, wearing a tie with Jessica's photo on it. “No matter what, it’s not bringing my daughter back.”

Lunsford has led a national crusade for harsher sentences for child murderers.

“Justice was served for this little girl, but what about the rest of them?” Lunsford asked, pleading for state laws to change for harsher sentences for child sex offenders.

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Jessica's grandmother sat in the courtroom with other family and friends, wearing a pendant with Jessica's photo on it around her neck.

A Miami jury convicted Couey in March of taking the girl from her bedroom to his nearby trailer in 2005, where he raped her and buried her alive.

Defense experts 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 used these "mitigating" factors in an effort to save Couey from the death penalty and instead, life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The court found that Couey is not mentally retarded but has a personality disorder and suffers from paranoia, Howard said.

Jurors recommended a death sentence. Couey said he believed he would be sentenced to death, according to a jail recording with his aunt.

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.