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by Tom McLaughlin, Defuniak Springs, FL

June 20-- A Walton County jury has decided that Seagrove Beach resident Steven Cozzie should die for the murder of 15-year-old Courtney Wilkes.

The 12-member group spent two hours in discussion before returning to the courtroom about 11 a.m., Thursday to notify Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Wells that they believed he should sentence the 23-year-old Cozzie to death.

Toni Wilkes, Courtney’s mother, addressed the media after the jury made its recommendation. It was the first time the family had spoken publicly since the Cozzie trial began almost two weeks ago.

“We feel relieved. We feel vindicated. We feel this is the penalty he should have gotten,” Wilkes said. “It doesn’t relieve our circumstances, but today may be the first day of our healing.”

A Spencer Hearing, at which Prosecutor Bobby Elmore and the Cozzie defense team will have one more opportunity to argue for the death penalty or an alternative of life in prison without parole is to be scheduled. Wells will impose his sentence at some point after the Spencer Hearing.

{mosimage}Cozzie looked somewhat stunned in the moments after the jury announced that each of its members shared the belief he should be executed. A couple of jurors did appear to be crying after the recommendation was read to the court by the clerk, but when polled each member said that they agreed with the call for death by lethal injection. (Photo Northwest Florida Daily News)

A tired Elmore said he was “comfortable” the jury had made the right decision.

“The world was a better place with Courtney Wilkes in it,” he said. “And the world will be a better place with Steven Cozzie removed from it.”

Courtney Wilkes was a bright, happy high schooler in June of 2011 when she arrived in Seagrove Beach to spend a week vacationing with her parents, sister and brother.

On June 16, Cozzie, who the Wilkes’ had seen hanging around the Beachcrest Condominium at which they were staying, asked Courtney Wilkes to accompany him on a walk and her mother, seeing the enthusiasm in Courtney’s face, agreed to allow her to go.

At the secluded Cassine Gardens nature trail nearby, Cozzie turned on Wilkes, throwing his shirt around her neck and subduing her through strangulation. He then dragged her limp body 75 feet into the dry Cypress swamp, where he raped her and then beat her viciously to death with a heavy piece of lumber.

Friday, the same jury that recommended the death penalty found Cozzie guilty of first degree premeditated murder, sexual assault, aggravated child abuse and kidnapping.

During the penalty phase that followed the actual trial, attorney Sharon Wilson presented Cozzie family members who described the defendant as a mentally challenged young man who had been physically, emotionally and sexually battered both inside and outside of his home for most of his life.

In her final statements to the jury Wednesday, Wilson asked that they grant Cozzie mercy by sentencing him to life in prison.

Courtney Wilkes’ family was present every day at the trial and during the penalty phase. When it was over Thursday, Toni Wilkes said the family would be going back home to their small community of Lyons, Ga., and there she would visit Courtney to let her know the outcome of the proceedings.

“She was an amazing girl. Maybe too good for this world,” Toni Wilkes said.

She thanked the Walton County community that has embraced her family as well as her own rural town in Georgia for support.

“We felt like they made it as easy as it could be for us,” she said.

An emotional Gwendolyn Schmidt, Cozzie’s sister, spoke briefly with the Wilkes’ family after the jury recommendation was announced. She apologized for the family’s loss.

“We’re sorry for you too,” Toni Wilkes told the young woman.