March 7, 2007 / 9:35 PM / 13 years ago

Sex offender guilty in rape, murder of Florida child

John Couey during his first appearance at the Citrus County Detention Facility in Lecanto, Florida, March 20, 2005. A Florida jury convicted the registered sex offender on Wednesday of kidnapping, raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl who was snatched from her bed and buried alive in a plastic garbage bag. REUTERS/Brian LaPeter/Pool

MIAMI (Reuters) - A Florida jury convicted a registered sex offender on Wednesday of kidnapping, raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl who was snatched from her bed and buried alive in a plastic garbage bag.

John Evander Couey could face the death penalty for the notorious 2005 killing of Jessica Lunsford, a crime that prompted a nationwide crackdown on sex offenders.

Lunsford was abducted from her home in the central Florida town of Homosassa in February 2005. Her body was found in a shallow grave behind the mobile home where Couey lived.

Couey, 48, confessed to the killing and told police where to find her body. His confession was thrown out of court because police did not allow him to talk to a lawyer at the time.

Police said Lunsford was stuffed into a garbage bag and buried alive. Medical examiners said she died of suffocation, and investigators found her blood on a mattress in Couey’s bedroom.

Couey was on probation for a drug conviction at the time and had been required to register as a sex offender after a conviction for fondling a 5-year-old girl. Citrus County Sheriff Jeffrey Dawsey described him as “truly a piece of trash.”

At trial, the only witness called by the defense was a psychologist who testified that Couey suffers from mental retardation and mental illness.

The case inspired Florida lawmakers to enact “Jessica’s Law,” mandating longer prison sentences and lifetime tracking via global positioning devices for sexual predators convicted of molesting children under age 12. Other states also introduced tougher legislation on sex offenders.

The trial was moved from Citrus County, where Jessica died, to nearby Lake County in central Florida but a mistrial was declared in July when it proved impossible to find an impartial jury. It was then moved to Miami.

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