Murder of Jessica Lunsford
|Born||Jessica Marie Lunsford
October 6, 1995
Gastonia, North Carolina, U.S.
|Died||February 27, 2005
Homosassa, Florida, U.S.
|Cause of death||Murder by suffocation|
|Parent(s)||Mark Lunsford (father)
Angela Bryant (mother)
|Relatives||Joshua Lunsford (brother)|
Jessica Marie Lunsford (October 6, 1995 – February 27, 2005) was a nine-year-old American girl who was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida in the early morning of February 24, 2005. Believed held captive over the weekend, she was raped and later murdered by 46-year-old John Couey, a convicted sex offender who lived nearby. The media covered the investigation and trial of her killer extensively. On August 24, 2007, a judge in Inverness, Florida sentenced Couey to death for kidnapping, sexual battery, and first degree murder. However, Couey died of natural causes in 2009, before his sentence could be carried out.
Abduction, rape and murder
Couey stated in an audio/videotaped confession that he had abducted, raped, and murdered Jessica Lunsford. A judge ruled on June 30, 2006 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. 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.
In his confession, Couey said that he entered Lunsford's house through an unlocked door at about three o'clock in the morning, awakened Lunsford, told her "Don't yell or nothing", and told her to follow him out of the house. He occupied a trailer along with two women, some 100 yards (91 m) away, at the time of Lunsford's abduction. He admitted in a videotaped and recorded deposition to raping Lunsford in his bedroom. Lunsford was kept in Couey's 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". 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.'
On March 14, Dixon (Couey's half sister) gave permission to police to search her home. 
On March 19, 2005, the police found Lunsford's body at a residence located on West Snowbird Court, buried in a hole approximately 2½' deep and 2' circular, covered with leaves. The body was removed from the ground and transported to the coroner's office. Her body had undergone "moderate" to "severe" decomposition and according to the publicly released autopsy reports was skeletonized on two fingers that Lunsford had poked through the bags before suffocating to death. The coroner ruled that death would have happened even in best circumstances within 2–3 minutes from lack of oxygen.
Arrest of John Couey
After approximately three weeks of intense searching for Lunsford around the area of her home, Couey, age 46, was arrested in Savannah, Georgia for an outstanding warrant of cannabis possession, but he was released after questioning because it was only a local warrant. He was later arrested in Augusta, Georgia. On March 18, 2005, Couey confessed to having kidnapped and murdered Lunsford. On March 19, 2005 police found Lunsford's body. 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. Couey continued to maintain that he was innocent until his death in September 2009.
Death of John Couey
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.
Jessica Lunsford Act
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. "Jessica's Law" refers to similar reform acts initiated by other states.
Wrongful death and negligence lawsuit
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. 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."
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, 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.
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.
- Partial transcript of Video Confession of Couey, CNN.com
- Ross, Jim. "Judge: Couey confession out" St. Petersburg Times, June 30, 2006
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- Garry, Stephanie (3 May 2008). "Lunsford's pain vivid in documentary 'Jessie's Dad'". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
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