- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

MIAMI (AP) — A convicted sex murderer deserves to be executed despite his mental problems because he committed a calculated, horrific crime against 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by burying her alive, a state prosecutor told jurors yesterday.

“The murder of Jessica was a cold, calculated and premeditated murder,” prosecutor Peter Magrino said in opening statements in the penalty phase of John Evander Couey’s trial. “There are some cases, factually, that call out for the death penalty.”

The same jury that convicted Couey last week of abducting, raping and killing Jessica now must recommend by majority vote whether he deserves life in prison or death.

Jessica was abducted from her bedroom in the central Florida town of Homosassa in February 2005, leading to a massive search that drew worldwide attention. Her body was found three weeks later in a shallow grave, clutching a stuffed dolphin and encased in two black plastic garbage bags, near the trailer where Couey had been living.

The trial was moved from Citrus County to Miami because of press attention.

The jury must balance aggravating factors, such as Jessica’s youth and vulnerability and the gruesome nature of the crime, with mitigating factors such as evidence of Couey’s limited intelligence and chronic substance abuse.

Couey’s attorneys urged jurors to sentence him to life in prison, calling psychologists who testified that Couey’s IQ of 64 is below the generally accepted mental retardation level of 70. Florida law and a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibit execution of someone judged mentally retarded.

“John Couey sits here today a 48-year-old man with the mind of a child,” defense attorney Alan Fanter said. “A lot of things happened in Mr. Couey’s life, and to Mr. Couey, that he had no control over.”

Couey was born prematurely and suffered from a birth defect of “floppy ears” that caused him to be bullied and teased in school, Mr. Fanter said. He was shuttled among various relatives and never received adequate help for his mental difficulties, turning eventually to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, the lawyer said.

A cousin of Couey’s, Linda Arnett, said her mother taught him how to talk and that he was in special education classes in school.

“He was quite behind everyone else,” she testified. “He just did not have the capability of learning like we did.”

Mr. Magrino said those factors “pale in comparison with the aggravating factors that apply in this case.”

Jurors also heard Jessica’s third-grade teacher, Diane Hart, and a guidance counselor tearfully recount the fear and sorrow after the girl’s disappearance and how her death traumatized her classmates. Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, did not testify in the victim-impact portion of the case.

Circuit Judge Richard Howard will make the ultimate decision on Couey’s fate, but probably not for several weeks.

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