Jessica Marie Lunsford, a nine-year-old American girl from Homosassa, Florida, was murdered in February 2005 (6 October 1995 – 24 February 2005). In the early hours of February 24, 2005, John Couey, a 46-year-old convicted s*ex offender who resided nearby, abducted Lunsford from her home. Over the course of the weekend, she was held captive by Couey, raped, and then murdered by being buried alive. The media provided extensive coverage of Couey’s investigation and trial.
Jessica’s Law, designed to protect potential victims and reduce a s*exual offender’s ability to re-offend, was introduced in Florida in the wake of Jessica Lunsford’s murder, and has since influenced similar legislation in 42 other states.
On August 24, 2007, in Inverness, Florida, a judge convicted Couey of kidnapping, se*xual assault, and first-degree murder of Lunsford and sentenced him to de-ath. Couey died of natural causes in 2009, prior to the execution of his sentence.
Investigation of Case
On February 24, 2005, during the night, nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford vanished from her home in Homosassa, Florida. John Evander Couey 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. This occurred after approximately three weeks of intensive searching for her in the vicinity of her residence. Couey, a 46-year-old Homosassa native with an extensive criminal history that included dozens of arrests for burglary, was a convicted child s*ex offender. Due to the laws of the time, Couey received only short sentences and was not monitored after his release, despite his history of repeated trespassing and s*exual assaults on children.
Couey was arrested in Augusta, Georgia, on March 12, at the request of the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, for questioning regarding Jessica Lunsford’s disappearance due to his residence on West Snowbird Court in Homosassa, which was only 65 yards away from the Lunsfords’ home, and his criminal record. Couey stated that he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the nine-year-old and that he had moved to Georgia to find a job, hearing about it on the television. After being interviewed, he was released from custody.
Dorothy Dixon, Couey’s half-sister, granted police permission to search her Homosassa trailer on West Snowbird Court on March 14. Couey resided at the residence on West Snowbird Court with Dixon, her boyfriend Matt Dittrich, her daughter and son-in-law, Madie and Gene Secord, and her grandson Joshua, age two. During the search, a blood-stained mattress and pillows were discovered in Couey’s room’s closet, and forensic analysis revealed that both Couey’s and Lunsford’s DNA was on the mattress.
Couey was arrested on March 17 and charged with the mur*der of Jessica Lunsford before being transported to the Citrus County jail in Florida.
On March 18, 2005, Couey recorded an audio and video confession of kidnapping, raping, and mu*rdering Lunsford.
Couey disclosed in his confession that he had previously observed Lunsford playing in her yard and estimated that she was approximately six years old. On the night of the abduction, Couey intended to simply burglarize the Lunsfords’ home, but upon seeing Jessica, “he acted on impulse and abducted her.” He entered Lunsford’s house around 3 a.m. through an unlocked door, woke Lunsford, told her “Don’t yell or anything,” and instructed her to follow him out of the house. At the time, he shared a trailer with two women located approximately 100 yards (91 meters) away. Couey admitted to raping Lunsford in his bedroom, keeping her in his bed that night, and committing a second rape the following morning. She complied with Couey’s command to remain in his closet while he reported for work at Billy’s Truck Lot. Three days after he abducted Jessica, Couey convinced her to enter two garbage bags by claiming he would “take her home.” Instead of killing the girl, he buried her alive after deciding there was nothing else he could do.
Discovery of Lunsford’s body
On March 19, police discovered the body of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford buried in a plastic bag in a hole approximately 2.5 feet (0.76 m) deep and 2 feet (0.61 m) in diameter, covered with leaves, at a home on West Snowbird Court in Homosassa. The decomposition of Lunsford’s body was recorded as “moderate” to “severe” at the coroner’s office, where it was removed from the ground and transported. According to the autopsy reports made available to the public, Lunsford poked two fingers through the bags before suffocating to de-ath, and the fingers had become skeletonized. The coroner determined that de-ath would have occurred within 2–3 minutes of oxygen deprivation, even in the best of circumstances.
Dixon stated that a week prior to the discovery of Lunsford’s body at the residence, she had given Couey money for a bus ticket and he had called her to say he had moved to Savannah, Georgia. In addition, Dixon and the other residents of the trailer claimed they had never seen Lunsford at the residence or observed anything unusual in Couey’s room, which had not been occupied since his departure.
A judge ruled on June 30, 2006, that Couey’s confession was inadmissible in court because, at the time it was recorded, police had denied Couey’s requests for an attorney, rendering the confession invalid and unreliable under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Over Couey’s objection, the trial court ruled that all evidence gathered after the confession, including the recovery of Lunsford’s body, as well as Couey’s allegedly incriminating statements to investigators and the jail guard, would be admissible.
The trial was relocated to Miami because officials were unable to select a fair jury in Citrus County, where it was originally scheduled to take place.
On March 7, 2007, Couey was found guilty of all charges related to the de-ath of Lunsford, including first-degree m*urder, kidnapping, burglary with assault or battery against any person, and capital s*exual battery. The jury deliberated for four hours and was tasked with recommending either life without parole or the de-ath penalty, the only two possible sentences under Florida law. One week later, after approximately one hour and fifteen minutes of deliberation, the jury recommended that Couey be executed. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Florida.
On August 11, 2007, a jury presiding over the Lunsford case voted 10-2 to recommend the de-ath penalty for Couey. Couey’s defense argued that his lifetime of emotional ab-se and below-average IQ would allow him to avoid the dath penalty under a 2002 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the execution of mentally handicapped individuals. The most reliable intelligence test, however, rated Couey’s IQ at 78, which is higher than the standard accepted level of intellectual disability, which is 70.
Couey was sentenced to de-ath and three consecutive life sentences on August 24, 2007. However, Couey died of natural causes on September 30, 2009, before the sentences could be carried out.
Following her passing, her father, Mark Lunsford, advocated for stricter tracking of released s*ex offenders through new legislation. The Jessica Lunsford Act bears her name. It mandates stricter restrictions on se*xual offenders (such as the use of electronic tracking devices) and longer prison terms for some convicted se*xual offenders. “Jessica’s Law” refers to similar state-level reform initiatives.
On February 19, 2008, almost three years to the day after Jessica’s abduction and m*urder, her father was represented in a pre-trial brief filed against the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement by attorneys from Jacksonville, Florida. After receiving notice of the pending lawsuit, Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy stated that the case was “without merit… There is only one person who should be held accountable for Jessica Lunsford’s de-ath, and that person is John Couey.”
Following complaints and suggestions from Citrus County residents that the pending litigation was being pursued out of greed and that his child might still be alive if he had been a better father, Mark Lunsford and Jacksonville-based attorneys Eric Block and Mark Gelman held a news conference in which they stated that the pending litigation was “not for the money… but for change.” Lunsford stated that procedures and policies required modification. 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, that Citrus County officials actively pursued Mark Lunsford’s father as their prime suspect despite evidence pointing elsewhere, and that had Citrus County officials followed up on a warrant issued by Georgia, Citrus County officials could have prevented Jessica’s de-ath.