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June 14-- Two days prior to the second anniversary of the brutal killing of 15-year-old vacationer Courtney Wilkes, Steven Cozzie has been convicted of her murder.

An eight woman, four man jury deliberated two hours Friday afternoon before announcing it had found Cozzie, 23, guilty of first degree premeditated murder, sexual battery, aggravated child abuse and kidnapping.

Wilkes battered, naked body was discovered June 16, 2011 in a dried-up Cypress swamp off of South Walton County’s Cassine Gardens Nature Trail. She had taken a walk with Cozzie earlier in the day and authorities found he had strangled her nearly to death with a shirt, dragged her behind a tree, raped her and beaten her brutally with a piece of lumber he located nearby.

The murder shocked both Wilkes’ small town of Lyons, Ga., where she was a popular high schooler, and the typically quiet beach town of Seagrove Beach that Cozzie called home.

Wilkes family and a courtroom full of supporters were present when the verdict was read. As per the instructions of Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Wells, they waited until the jury had left before exchanging tearful hugs. Several stopped on the way out of court to embrace Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson, who was also visibly emotional following the verdict.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the Wilkes’ family,” Adkinson said. “I hate for them to have had to go through with this.”

The murder conviction carries only two possible penalties, life in prison without parole or death. The state is seeking the death penalty against Cozzie and the “penalty phase” of the trial, in which the same jury will be asked to recommend one of the two sentences for Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Wells’ determination, will get underway Monday at 8:30 a.m.

“It was obviously the verdict we were asking for,” Prosecuting Attorney Bobby Elmore said. He declined further comment on the case until after completion of the penalty phase.

Defense Attorney Spiro Kypreos declined comment on the verdict.

Friday opened with closing arguments in the case. Elmore spent about an hour going over the evidence he had presented during the course of the week-long trial and discussed the elements of each charge Cozzie faced along with the murder charge. Convictions on any of the charges of sexual battery, kidnapping or aggravated child abuse give the prosecution “aggravators” they can use in arguing for the death penalty for Cozzie.

“Justice requires you convict Steven Cozzie, according to the evidence and the law, of all the crimes he committed against that child,” Elmore said. “Justice requires it.”

Kypreos informed the court during a break between Elmore’s closing argument and his own that he and his client had made the decision to forego any effort to obtain an acquittal.

Kypreos instead argued that Cozzie had indeed killed Courtney Wilkes, but was guilty of second degree rather than first degree murder.  He told jurors Elmore had not proven premeditation in the case.

The second degree murder conviction could still have carried a life sentence, but it would have taken the death penalty off the table for prosecutors. Kypreos referred in his closing to an interview Cozzie had given to investigators where he admitted killing Wilkes, though he said he was forced to do so at gunpoint.

 “Mr. Elmore said he (Cozzie) admitted he killed her and the prosecutor is correct, he admitted it,” Kypreos said as he addressed the jury for the final time . “Does that mean he is guilty of first degree murder?”

Kypreos sought to convince jurors that Michael Spencer, the young man who Cozzie had shown Wilkes’ body to, had lied, exaggerated or perhaps even misspoken due to shock when providing information about what he’d seen or what Cozzie had told him on the day of the murder.

Kypreos tried to raise doubts that the Wilkes’ murder had been as brutal as Elmore had attempted to make it appear,  and even questioned whether the blood-covered piece of lumber found at the scene of the crime – and described by Cozzie himself as what he had beaten the girl with – was indeed the murder weapon.

“At some point in time we have to get away from the theatrics and down to hard evidence,” Kypreos said.

On rebuttal Elmore assured the jury, “you’ve heard all the evidence and arguments, if there’s reasonable doubt it will find you.”

“Seek the truth.”

(Special to SoutheastGeorgiaToday by Tom McLaughlin)