TALLAHASSEE – John Evander Couey, a convicted sex offender awaiting execution for kidnapping, raping and burying 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford alive, died of natural causes Wednesday.
Couey, 51, had been ill for some time and died at a Jacksonville hospital where he had been since Aug. 12, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.
“It was not a surprise,” she said, but declined to provide specifics because prison officials had not yet received a report from the hospital.
Jessica’s grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, 77, said in a telephone interview that she could not feel bad about Couey’s death.
“He murdered my granddaughter. He didn’t show any mercy to my granddaughter,” she said. “God took control of it. He took him out of this world. … I’m not crying, honey. If my legs and feet would hold up, I’d go out and shout all over Citrus County.”
The 2005 crime prompted many states to pass laws named for Jessica that impose restrictions on sex offenders, including registration requirements. Florida’s version bans them and others convicted of serious crimes from school grounds.
Couey took Jessica from her bedroom to his nearby trailer in February 2005, triggering a massive search. The third-grader’s body was found about three weeks later in a grave in Couey’s yard, only about 150 yards from her home.
Her body was found wrapped in two garbage bags under a foot of dirt. She had poked holes through the bags with her fingers, although her hands were bound with wire. She was still clutching her favorite stuffed animal, a purple dolphin.
Couey died just over a month before the Florida Supreme Court was scheduled to hear his automatic appeal. He had an IQ of 78, slightly above the level generally considered mentally disabled, but the judge rejected an argument by his lawyer that he could not be legally executed.
Couey’s 2007 trial was moved to Miami because of publicity about the case, and he spent much of it drawing in coloring books. He looked straight ahead as Circuit Judge Ric Howard told him he should be executed.
Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, teared up then as he listened to the judge read a detailed history of the case. Outside court, he had a message for Couey: “Skip all these appeals. Take your punishment. Stand up and be a man.”
Couey confessed to the crime, but his confession was thrown out because he did not have a lawyer present. Jail guards and investigators testified he repeatedly admitted details of the slaying but said he hadn’t meant to kill the girl.
Prosecutors also introduced overwhelming physical evidence, including fingerprints and DNA.
Couey previously had been convicted of exposing himself to a 5-year-old girl in 1991. His criminal record also included 24 burglary arrests and carrying a concealed weapon.