INVERNESS, FL — On August 24, 2007, Judge Ric Howard acted on the recommendation of a jury that, the previous March, had found John Evander Couey, 48, guilty in the kidnapping, sexual battery, and murder of nine-year-old Jessica Lundford. He sentenced the ex-con and known pedophile to death.
In February 2005, Couey abducted Jessica from her home at 3 A.M., raped her over the course of three days in captivity, and then tied her up in a garbage bag and told her he was taking her home. Instead, Couey buried Jessica alive, and she died from asphyxiation while attempting to claw her way to freedom.
Directly addressing Couey, Judge Howard recounted the atrocities and stated:
“You caused a slow, suffering, conscious death. Simply stated, civilized society recoils in horror at the image of the abject fear and terror that Jessica experienced in her final, conscious minutes of life.”
After further noting that Couey made “crude, vulgar, and repulsive” comments about sexually violating the child to arresting officers, the judge ordered the previously registered sex offender to be executed by an agent of the state.
Upon discovering Jessica’s bedroom empty on the morning of February 23, Mark Lunsford, her father, reported his daughter missing.
Mark and Jessica lived in a mobile home with his parents in the rural community of Homosassa. Local residents flew into action, hunting high and low by the hundreds, desperately hoping for her safe return. The ensuing three weeks of agony would ultimately end with the worst possible outcome.
Police discovered that convicted sexual predator John Couey resided a mere 150 yards from where Jessica had vanished.
On March 15, Couey’s half sister, who owned the trailer in question, allowed police to search the premises. Officers found Jessica’s blood and John Couey’s semen on a mattress and immediately arrested him. He swore he had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance — at first.
Four days later, searchers unearthed Jessica’s remains just outside Couey’s trailer. She was clutching a stuffed dolphin toy between her bound wrists.
Upon being threatened with a lie-detector test while in custody, Couey confessed to everything. He even agreed to be videotaped while doing it.
Initially, prosecutors believed the conviction would be open and shut, but the tape backfired on them. It depicted Couey asking for a lawyer before sharing details of the crime, and the police had not properly followed up on his rightful request.
As a result, a judge disallowed the confession to be used in court. Prosecutors could, however, go forward with all the other overwhelming evidence against Couey. Such items included the “inevitable discovery” of Jessica’s body and other incriminating statements he made, such as an attempt to downplay the media coverage of the case by telling the cops, “This sort of thing happens every day!”
Regardless, once his confession got tossed, Couey went back to insisting he was innocent.
On March 8, 2007, a jury deliberated for about four hours before finding John Couey guilty of all charges. The following week, the same jurors unanimously recommended that Couey receive capital punishment.
In between his conviction and official sentencing in August, CNN played a recording from a phone call Couey made from jail to a friend. On the tape, he said he figured he’d get death and added:
“I kick myself in the butt a hundred times a day. Stupidity. Just trying to figure out, I’m just asking myself, why was you so stupid?”
Alas, Couey never did face the state executioner. Instead, in 2009, the killer died from “natural causes” in a prison hospital.
Mark Lunsford took no joy in the demise of his daughter’s murderer. Instead, he expressed sorrow and relief, telling the press: “To me, death is sad. But her death, Jessie’s death, has been redeemed … I’m relieved. I’m glad it’s over with.”
Moving forward from every parent’s worst nightmare, Mark Lunsford became an activist on behalf of protecting children from known predators.
In 2005, Mark persuaded Florida Governor Jeb Bush to sign “The Jessica Lunsford Act” into law. The ordinance requires stiffer penalties and lifetime monitoring for adult felons convicted of sexually abusing children under age 12.
“Jessica’s Law,” as it has come to be known, has since been enacted in several other states.
Main photos: John Couey [Florida Department of Corrections]; Jessica Lunsford [Wikipedia]