By MITCH STACY
Associated Press Writer
INVERNESS, Fla. (AP) - A convicted sex offender was sentenced Friday to death for kidnapping 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, raping her and burying her alive in his yard.
John Evander Couey looked straight ahead as Circuit Judge Ric Howard told him he should be executed for the 2005 crimes that led to new laws in many states cracking down on convicted sex offenders.
Sheriff's deputies hustled the handcuffed inmate out of the crowded courtroom. The girl's father, Mark Lunsford, teared up as he listened to the judge read a detailed history of the case for nearly an hour.
He hugged relatives after the sentence was read. Outside court, Lunsford had a message for Couey: "Skip all these appeals. Take your punishment. Stand up and be a man."
The jury that convicted Couey in March recommended 10-2 that he die for his crimes, but the decision was left to Howard.
An attorney for Couey, 49, had argued that he couldn't legally be executed because he is mentally retarded, but Howard brushed aside that claim in a strongly worded ruling earlier this month.
Mentally retarded people cannot be executed under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The jury convicted Couey of taking the girl in February 2005 from her bedroom to his nearby trailer, sparking a massive search.
The third-grader's body was found about three weeks after she disappeared in a grave in Couey's yard, about 150 yards from her own home.
Couey, already a convicted sex offender when he committed the crime, was arrested in Georgia and confessed to the killing.
That confession was thrown out as evidence because Couey did not have a lawyer present. Despite the confession being tossed, Couey incriminated himself other times.
Jail guards and investigators testified that he repeatedly admitted details of the slaying after his arrest, insisting that he hadn't meant to kill the third-grader but panicked during an intense, nationally publicized police search.
Prosecutors also had overwhelming physical evidence, including DNA from the girl's blood and Couey's semen on a mattress in his room as well as her fingerprints in a closet where investigators said she was hidden.
Howard recounted the evidence in detail, including Couey wrapping her in two garbage bags, putting her alive into a hole then piling a foot of dirt on top of her.
"His actions crushed the very breath and life out of Jessica Marie Lunsford," Howard said. "Jessica futilely poked two fingers out of the inner bag indicating that she was trying to dig her way out of what would become her grave," Howard said.
"Her last thoughts ... cannot be fathomed." Couey has a criminal record that includes 24 burglary arrests, carrying a concealed weapon and indecent exposure. He was designated a sex offender for exposing himself to a 5-year-old girl in 1991.