Aug. 24, 2007 -- A Florida judge this afternoon sentenced sex offender John Evander Couey to die for the brutal 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.
"Sentencing is about a final accounting, it is a closure, it is a reckoning," Circuit Judge Richard Howard said at a sentencing hearing this afternoon in which he read a description of the crime so graphic that he had to stop more than once to compose himself.
Howard listed a number of aggravating factors -- including Couey's previous sexual assault conviction, the girl's young age and the heinousness of the crime -- as reasons for his decision.
"He caused a slow, suffering, cautious death, Jessica was placed not in one, but two trash bags," Howard said. "She was alive when he started to shovel the dirt over her body."
Howard said the facts of the crime "vastly outweighed" mitigating arguments put forward by Couey's attorneys in an effort to stave off capital punishment -- particularly questions raised about Couey's mental capacity.
"He saw the victim playing in her yard and planned the burglary," Howard said. "He hid her in the closet for days. When he became fearful of the policemen, he dug a hole."
The Miami jury that convicted Couey in March had recommended the death sentence by a 10-2 vote, but under Florida state law Howard had the final word regarding capital punishment.
Couey was convicted of kidnapping the girl from her bedroom, sexually assaulting her and later burying her alive in garbage bags. Howard described dirt under the girl's fingernails and holes poked in a trash bag as evidence of her effort to free herself from a foot-deep hole. Her wrists were bound with speaker wire and Howard said she may have been alive for up to five minutes before she suffocated.
A massive three-week search for the third-grader ended with the discovery of her body in the hole outside the trailer where Couey lived -- just 150 yards from her own home.
Couey, a convicted sex offender, was arrested in Georgia and, after initially denying his involvement, confessed to the crime. His trial had to be moved from Citrus County, Fla., to Miami because of intense backlash among residents in the local community.
Mark Lunsford, Jessica's father, originally noticed that his daughter was gone from the house. Also missing was a purple stuffed dolphin described as her favorite toy that he had won for her. The dolphin was found buried with the girl's body.
Lunsford, who sat stoicly while the judge laid out the grisly details of the crime today, implored lawmakers in Florida and across the country to stiffen penalties against pedophiles and fund law enforcement during an emotional press conference after the sentencing.
"You can't do anything to bring my daughter back, but you can do everything to save these other kids," Lunsford said.
It is an effort he has spearheaded since his daughter's rape and murder. Jessica's Law, which has been introduced and passed in various states, includes mandatory minimum sentencing and lifetime electronic monitoring of adults convicted of having a sexual relationship with a child under 12. A version of the law has also been introduced at the federal level.
"Justice was served for this little girl, but what about the rest of them, what about the ones who survive?" Lunsford asked. "Killing a child is the worst, but who has it the worst? The child that dies or the child that survives?"
He also urged Couey to forgo what will likely be a lengthy appeals process and accept his punishment. Asked if he would attend Couey's execution, Lunsford joked that he was going to apply for the job of executioner. "If I don't make jokes," he said, "then all I'll do is cry."
The public defender representing Couey had asked for a life sentence instead of capital punishment, arguing that Couey is mildly retarded. A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibits the execution of mentally retarded people.
A judge, however, ruled earlier this month that Couey was not mentally retarded and was eligible for the death penalty. At today's hearing, Howard again batted away the arguments that Couey's mental aptitude had prompted his uncontrollable behavior.
The St. Petersburg Times this morning released an audio recording, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, of Couey during a jailhouse telephone conversation with a relative in which he shows remorse for the crime.
"I kick myself in the butt a hundred times a day," Couey told the woman on the tape. "I just keep asking myself, 'Why were you so stupid?'"
In the recording, Couey also blamed his behavior on a struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.