June 11-- A jury of ten women and four men including two alternates will decide the fate of a Florida man accused of murdering Toombs County teenager Courtney Wilkes. The trial started Monday and it took a day-and-a-half to select the jury in the Walton County, Florida circuit court.
Opening statements and the testimony of Courtney's mother started Tuesday afternoon. Here's the report from the courtroom by our correspondent Tom McLaughlin.
"Toni Wilkes, the mother of 15-year-old murder victim Courtney Wilkes, teared up on the witness stand Tuesday as she described the last words she spoke to her daughter.
“OK baby, but be responsible.”
Courtney, the oldest of three children of a family from tiny Lyons, Ga., looked ecstatic that day on the beach, more so when she received permission on June 16, 2011, to take a walk down the beach with “the lifeguard dude” who had become a casual acquaintance during the Wilkes’ weeklong vacation at the Beachcrest condominiums on Seagrove Beach.
For Courtney, it was the first boy or man she’d been allowed to spend time alone with, Toni Wilkes explained.
“She was not allowed to date until she was 16. She never even asked,” she said.
The Wilkes family watched Courtney walk off with the man they would only later come to know as 21-year-old Steven Cozzie, and some five hours later they would learn that she had been killed and Cozzie charged with her murder.
Prosecuting attorney Bobby Elmore made sure in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon jurors knew just how brutal Courtney Wilkes’ death had been, and he said evidence would show beyond any reasonable doubt that it was Cozzie who had committed the crime.
“Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,” Elmore shouted across the courtroom. “Ten times I hit her.”
Cozzie bragged about his deed to a witness, Michael Spencer, as he showed off Wilkes’ dead body, Elmore said.
The crushing blows to the skull ended the life of a girl who Cozzie had strangled nearly to death with his shirt, drug into the bushes off of a nature trail, beaten, stripped and raped, Elmore told the jury.
Though those in the courtroom had been warned against emotional outbursts, Wilkes’ family members had to walk out twice during Elmore’s opening statements, some of them sobbing openly.
The veteran assistant state attorney furthered his argument with photos, including those of the crime scene and Wilkes’ ravaged body that drew an objection from defense attorney Spiro Kypreos.
The trial got underway about 2 p.m. Tuesday after a day and a half were spent selecting a jury. Cozzie, who wore glasses and a crew cut, could face the death penalty if convicted of first degree premeditated murder. He is also charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and child abuse.
Kypreos compared Elmore’s opening to dragging a skunk through the jury box. “How do you get the smell out?” he asked.
He reminded jurors that they will convict or not convict Cozzie based on evidence introduced in the case, not the theatrics of a prosecuting attorney.
“Every single word he said to you for the last hour and 15 minutes are not evidence in this case. The photos he showed you are not evidence in this case at this time,” Kypreos said.
Both attorneys urged jurors to listen to evidence as it was presented during the trial that is expected to last two weeks. Kypreos said witness Michael Spencer could be particularly key.
Spencer, 18, at the time of the killing, had once boasted to Cozzie that he had killed two men, according to Elmore. Cozzie went to Spencer after killing Courtney Wilkes and took him to show him the body.
Spencer was with Cozzie when emergency personnel, looking for Courtney Wilkes, questioned them. He told them nothing at first, but later, after being urged by an Internet chat room friend and a relative to step forward he took Walton County deputies to the body.
Spencer, according to statements given much later by Cozzie, held a gun on Cozzie and forced him to kill the young vacationer."