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Jessica Lunsford's killer, John Couey, dies of cancer

HOMOSASSA - News of the death of John Evander Couey, condemned to die for killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in a case that sparked legislation across the nation clamping down on sex offenders, was met with mixed - but strong - emotions Wednesday. "God done this in his own time," said Ruthie Lunsford, Jessica's grandmother, who said Couey's death Wednesday morning from anal cancer came as a surprise. "I am not crying." Her husband, Archie, said his emotions were torn between vengeance and his religious beliefs. "Death is always sad to me," the 76-year-old grandfather said. "I'm just glad that it's over with. We never got to see him put to death. But we wouldn't have lived that long. No way."
Jessica's father, Mark Lunsford, took a long motorcycle ride to reflect on the day's events. He said he wanted Couey to die from lethal injection. "My daughter's murderer died today," Lunsford said Wednesday evening. "And it wasn't by our hands. ... John Couey got off easy." He said he had not been aware that Couey had cancer. "Cancer is an awful disease," Lunsford said. "Today, it's a good disease." The prosecutor in the case, Pete Magrino, said he was relieved to hear the news. "It matters not to me how he died, just that he's dead and he won't be able to victimize anyone ever again." The Lunsfords endured years of investigation and a lengthy trial ending with a conviction and death sentence for their neighbor, who abducted the child, raped her and killed her in 2005. Now, it appears that grief seemingly perpetuated for four years by a methodical but at times frustrating legal system may be alleviated - at least as much as it can be for surviving relatives of a young girl who died with such brutality. According to prosecutors, Jessica - her parents always called her Jessie - was abducted from her home in the middle of the night in February 2005. Couey kept her in the closet of his nearby mobile home and sexually molested her before binding her wrists and ankles with speaker wire, stuffing her inside two black plastic garbage bags and burying her alive in a 4-foot-deep hole. Couey, 51, was on death row at the Florida State Prison near Starke until Aug. 12, when medical personnel there sent him to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital, which has a contract with the Florida Department of Corrections to treat inmates when prison doctors can't. He died at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said. She said that during Couey's two years in the prison, he never had a single visitor. A date for Couey's execution had never been set. Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy became intimately involved with the case and often appeared with Lunsford lobbying for stricter sex offender laws. "I know (Couey) didn't suffer the way Jessie did when he killed her," Dawsy said in a statement released Wednesday evening. "I'm sorry I won't get to look him in the eyes as he died, but I'm relieved to know he'll never hurt another child again." Couey had been convicted of a sex offense years earlier, but no one in the neighborhood knew about it at the time. He even did some work at the elementary school Jessica attended. In the years that followed Jessica's death, Mark Lundsford focused on the passage of "Jessie's Law," lobbying across the nation for more stringent restrictions on convicted sex offenders. Florida was the first state to pass the law, and within two years of her death, more than 20 other states followed. The Jessica Marie Lunsford Act, passed by the Florida Legislature in May 2005, requires school districts to do background checks on contractors and vendors who may come in contact with children. The law also requires sex offenders to register in person every six months.

Reporters Catherine Dolinski, Josh Poltilove, editor Howard Altman and News Channel 8 reporters Samara Sodos and Krista Klaus contributed to this report.

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