Murder of Jessica Lunsford

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Jessica Lunsford
Born Jessica Marie Lunsford
(1995-10-06)October 6, 1995
Gastonia, North Carolina, U.S.
Died February 27, 2005(2005-02-27) (aged 9)
Homosassa, Florida, U.S.
Cause of death Murder by suffocation
  • Mark Lunsford (father)
  • Angela Bryant (mother)
Relatives Joshua Lunsford (brother)

Jessica Marie Lunsford (October 6, 1995 – February 27, 2005) was an American nine-year-old girl from Homosassa, Florida, who was murdered in February 2005. Lunsford was abducted from her home in the early morning of February 24, 2005, by John Couey, a 46-year-old convicted sex offender who lived nearby. Couey held her captive over the weekend, during which she was raped and later murdered by being buried alive. The media extensively covered the investigation and trial of Couey.

Lunsford's murder became a cause célèbre that influenced the introduction of legislation in Florida known as Jessica's Law, designed to protect potential victims and reduce a sexual offender's ability to re-offend, which has since influenced similar legislation in forty-two other states.

On August 24, 2007, a judge in Inverness convicted Couey for the kidnapping, sexual battery, and first degree murder of Lunsford, and sentenced him to death. However, Couey died of natural causes in 2009, before his sentence could be carried out.


Jessica Lunsford disappeared in the night on February 24, 2005, from her home in Homosassa, Florida, and after approximately three weeks of intense searching for her around the area of her home, John Evander Couey was arrested in Savannah, Georgia, for an outstanding warrant of cannabis possession, but was released after questioning because it was only a local warrant.[1] Couey was a 46-year-old long-time resident of Homosassa with an extensive criminal record, listing dozens of arrests for burglary and was a convicted child sex offender. Due to the laws at the time, Couey received only short sentences and was not monitored after release, despite his record of being an experienced trespasser and his repeated sexual offenses against children.

On March 12, Couey was arrested in Augusta, Georgia, at the request of the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, for questioning about Lunsford's disappearance due to his residence on West Snowbird Court in Homosassa, only 65 yards from Lunsford's home, and his criminal record. Couey stated he did not have anything to do with the girl's disappearance and had moved to Georgia to find a job, only knowing about it from the television news.[2] He was released from police custody after being interviewed.

On March 14, Couey's half-sister Dorothy Dixon gave permission to police to search her trailer at West Snowbird Court in Homosassa. Couey had lived at the West Snowbird Court residence with Dixon, her boyfriend Matt Dittrich, her daughter and son–in-law, Madie and Gene Secord, and her two-year-old grandson, Joshua. During the search a blood-stained mattress and pillows were found in Couey's closet in his room, and forensic analysis discovered both Couey's and Lunsford's DNA on the mattress.[3]

On March 17, Couey was arrested and charged with the murder of Jessica Lunsford, and transported to the Citrus County jail in Florida.

Couey's confession[edit]

On March 18, 2005, Couey made an audio-recorded and videotaped confession to having kidnapped, raped and murdered Lunsford.[4]

In his confession, Couey said that he had previously seen Lunsford playing in her yard and thought she was "about six years old." On the night of the abduction, Couey had intended to just burglarize the Lunsford's home, but saw Jessica and "acted on impulse and he took her." He entered Lunsford's house at about three o'clock in the morning through an unlocked door, awakened Lunsford, told her "Don't yell or nothing", and told her to follow him out of the house.[5] He occupied a trailer along with two women, some 100 yards (91 m) away, at the time of Lunsford's abduction.[6] Couey admitted to raping Lunsford in his bedroom, keeping her in his bed that evening, where he raped her again in the morning. Couey put her in his closet and ordered her to remain there, which she did as he reported for work at "Billy's Truck Lot".[5] Three days after he abducted her, Couey tricked Jessica into getting into two garbage bags by saying he was going to "take her home". He instead buried her alive as he decided he could do nothing else with the girl. He said he "Didn't want people seeing him and Lunsford across the street."[citation needed]

Discovery of Lunsford's body[edit]

On March 19, police found Lunsford's body at the residence on West Snowbird Court in Homosassa, buried in a plastic bag in a hole approximately 2½' deep and 2' circular, covered with leaves. Lunsford's body was removed from the ground and transported to the coroner's office, where it was recorded to had undergone "moderate" to "severe" decomposition. According to the publicly released autopsy reports, Lunsford had poked two fingers through the bags before suffocating to death, and the fingers had skeletonized. The coroner ruled that death would have happened even in best circumstances within 2–3 minutes from lack of oxygen.[citation needed]

After the discovery of Lunsford's body at the residence, Dixon stated that a week earlier she had given Couey money for a bus ticket, and he had telephoned her to say he had moved to Savannah, Georgia. Additionally, Dixon and the other residents of the trailer claimed to have never seen Lunsford at the home or noticed anything strange from Couey's room, which had not been used since he was last there.[7]

On June 30, 2006, a judge ruled that Couey's confession was inadmissible in court because when it was recorded police had not granted Couey's requests for a lawyer, thereby rendering the confession invalid and unreliable under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Over Couey's objection, the trial court ruled that all evidence collected after the confession, including the recovery of Lunsford's body, would be admitted, as would incriminating statements allegedly made by Couey to investigators and a jail guard.[8]


On March 7, 2007, Couey was found guilty in Florida of all charges in relation to Lunsford's death, including first degree murder, kidnapping, and capital sexual battery. On March 14, 2007, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty. The case was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

On August 24, 2007, Couey was sentenced to death, in addition to three consecutive life sentences. However, on September 30, 2009, before the sentences could be carried out, Couey died of natural causes.[9]


Jessica Lunsford Act[edit]

Following her death, her father, Mark Lunsford, pursued new legislation to provide more stringent tracking of released sex offenders. The Jessica Lunsford Act was named after her. It requires tighter restrictions on sex offenders (such as wearing electronic tracking devices) and increased prison sentences for some convicted sex offenders.[10] "Jessica's Law" refers to similar reform acts initiated by other states.

Wrongful death and negligence lawsuit[edit]

On February 19, 2008, almost three years to the day after her kidnapping and murder, Jessica's father was represented by Jacksonville, Florida lawyers in a pre-trial brief filed against the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.[11] After receiving notice of the pending suit, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy stated that he believed the case to be "baseless... There is only one person in the world that should be held responsible for Jessica Lunsford's death and that's John Couey."[12]

Following complaints and suggestions from Citrus County residents that the pending litigation was being pursued out of greed and that had he been a better father his child may still be alive,[13] Mark Lunsford and Jacksonville-based attorneys Eric Block and Mark Gelman held a news conference in Jacksonville, where it was stated that the pending litigation was "not for the money... but for change." Lunsford stated that changes were needed in procedures and policies. It is alleged that Couey had Jessica Lunsford alive in the trailer while Citrus County officials visited the trailer, that police dogs indicated Jessica was being held in the direction of the trailer and were ignored, that Citrus County officials actively pursued Mark Lunsford's father as their prime suspect while evidence pointed elsewhere, and that had Citrus County officials followed up on an outstanding warrant issued by Georgia, that Citrus County officials could have entered Couey's residence and possibly saved the child.[13][14][15]

Other media[edit]

Mark Lunsford's transformation to a child activist after the murder of his daughter Jessica is the subject of the 2011 documentary film, Jessie's Dad.[16]

The abduction of Jessica Lunsford was covered in 2013 on the TV series FBI: Criminal Pursuit in the episode "Lurking Menace".[17]


  1. ^ Perez, Mabel. "Judge throws out Couey confession", The Ocala Star Banner, July 1, 2006
  2. ^ "ANSWER BRIEF OF APPELLEE" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-04-01. 
  3. ^ "ANSWER BRIEF OF APPELLEE" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-04-01. 
  4. ^ Partial transcript of Video Confession of Couey,
  5. ^ a b Bruno, Anthony. Jessica Lunsford: Death of a 9 year old" Archived 2007-03-06 at the Wayback Machine., CourtTV CrimeLibrary
  6. ^ "Drifter says he held girl three days",, 24 June 2005
  7. ^ "ANSWER BRIEF OF APPELLEE" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-04-01. 
  8. ^ Ross, Jim. "Judge: Couey confession out" St. Petersburg Times, June 30, 2006
  9. ^ "Convicted child killer Couey dies in prison, Florida officials say". September 30, 2009. Retrieved May 9, 2011. 
  10. ^ Ramirez, Jessica. "The Abductions That Changed America", Newsweek, 29 January 2007, pp. 54–55.
  11. ^ Szakonyi, Mark (February 21, 2008). "Local attorney plans suit on behalf of Lunsford family". Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  12. ^ "Lunsford Plans to Sue Sheriff's Office". February 21, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  13. ^ a b "Mark Lunsford to reveal new details of his lawsuit in Jacksonville today". February 25, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  14. ^ "'Not about the money'". CNN. February 26, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  15. ^ "Mark Lunsford's allegations announced and Sheriff Jeff Dawsy's response". February 26, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  16. ^ Garry, Stephanie (3 May 2008). "Lunsford's pain vivid in documentary 'Jessie's Dad'". Tampa Bay Times. Archived from the original on 5 August 2012. Retrieved 17 April 2012. 
  17. ^ idfullepisodes (2 April 2013). "Lurking Menace". Retrieved 4 July 2017 – via YouTube. 

External links[edit]