June 13-- After hearing two-and-a-half days of testimony, a Florida jury may decide Friday on the guilt or innocence of Steven Cozzie, the man accused of killing Toombs County teenager Courtney Wilkes two years ago this month.
Assistant State's Attorney Bobby Elmore rested the state's case Thursday afternoon and defense attorney Spyro Kypreos informed the court he is not calling any witnesses for this phase of the case.
Our Court Reporter Tom McLaughlin says the defense move means they expect a guilty verdict in the case and will call witnesses in the penalty phase of the trial.
Under Florida law, if the jury finds Cozzie guilty of capital murder it must decide if he will be executed.
Thursday the state presented evidence that showed Cozzie's DNA was all over the crime scene and that none from his friend Michael Spencer was found.
Cozzie's attorneys have tried to link Spencer to the crime. In a police interview after his arrest, Cozzie claimed Spencer made him kill Courtney by holding a gun on him.
According to McLaughlin, if the verdict is reached Friday, the penalty phase would start Monday and could last at least a couple of days. Pensacola attorney Sharon Wilson specializes in capital murder cases and would lead the defense team's efforts to save Cozzie's life.
Tom McLaughlin Reports From the DeFuniak Springs, FL Courtroom
" Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore let Steven Cozzie’s own words put the final touch Thursday to his case for conviction on a charge of first degree murder.
Two weeks after his arrest for the June 16, 2011, killing of 15-year-old vacationer Courtney Wilkes, Cozzie requested and received an interview with 30-year Walton County Sheriff’s Office veteran Stephen Sunday, the lead investigator in the murder case.
When Sunday arrived at the jail he was presented with a written document that laid out what Cozzie was going to tell him that day, and then he told the investigator that he had killed Wilkes, but was forced to do so, at gunpoint, by his friend Michael Spencer.
“He pulled out a gun and told me to kill her, so I killed her,” Cozzie told Sunday. “I’ve never had anything like that happen to me in my life.”
The taped conversation was played Thursday afternoon for the jury trying Cozzie on charges of first degree murder, rape, child abuse and kidnapping. The state will pursue a death penalty if Cozzie is convicted. Following the playing of the tape, Elmore rested the prosecution case.
Cozzie is accused of luring Wilkes away from her family vacation and leading her to the secluded Cassine Gardens Nature Trail in the Seagrove Beach area of South Walton County. There, when she decided she wanted to return to her family, he pulled off his shirt and began strangling her. The strangulation continued until the 6-foot-2 Cozzie was able to subdue his smaller, younger victim and then he raped her and beat her to death with a piece of lumber.
In a tape from the night of his arrest, also played for the jury Thursday, Cozzie denies over and over again that he had killed Wilkes.
In the second tape, recorded Aug. 1, 2011, Cozzie told Sunday that he had lied in an original interview by telling investigators he had never taken Wilkes to the nature walk where her body was found. He said he was there with the girl when he slipped and fell on her and she was knocked unconscious when she hit her head on a Cypress stump.
“I seen blood, that’s why I panicked,” Cozzie told Sunday. He also said in the interview that he was high on marijuana and Ecstasy.
Though a deputy testified Thursday that Cozzie had slept in his car on the way to the Walton County Jail the night of the arrest, Cozzie said in his written statement to Sunday “I had remorse” after killing Wilkes.
“It was my job to bring the girl back safely and I failed,” he said.
“The killing was not one of violence, it was me being forced to do it,” he said in his statement. “The truth is I was drug induced, and the truth is I was forced by Mike Spencer.”
He told the investigator that Spencer wanted Wilkes dead and even discussed mutilating the body of the victim.
Spencer had been a key figure in the investigation that led to the discovery of Wilkes’ body and the arrest of Cozzie. Spencer testified Wednesday that Cozzie had shown him the girls’ body and described what he’d done to her. On the day of the murder it was Spencer who led officers to Wilkes.
In the tape made the night of Cozzie’s arrest, officers inform him that Spencer had been cooperating with law enforcement.
Jennifer Hatler, a DNA expert with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, provided testimony early Thursday that put Cozzie at the Courtney Wilkes’ murder scene and presented a pretty strong case that Spencer, the man Cozzie would later say forced him to kill, was not.
Cozzie’s DNA was found on a Hawaiian shirt soaked with Wilkes’ blood that was found near the dry Cypress swamp bed where the body was located, Hatler testified. His DNA was also discovered on the girl’s thigh, and hers found under his fingernails.
The likelihood the DNA taken off Cozzie’s hands did not belong to Wilkes, Hatler testified, was “one in one quadrillion.”
Defense attorney Spiro Kypreos rested the case for the defense as well Thursday, choosing not to call any witnesses. He told Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Wells that he would save his witnesses for “the next phase” of the trial, indicating perhaps that he believes a murder conviction is a foregone conclusion and he’s preparing for battle in a death penalty phase of the trial.
Both attorneys will present final arguments Friday morning before the jury begins deliberations."