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October 17--  A Florida judge has sentenced Steven Cozzie to death for the murder of Toombs County teenager Courtney Wilkes.  Tom McLaughlin files this report for us from the courtroom in DeFuniak Springs, Florida.

" A heart-rending human drama that began June 16, 2011 with the brutal murder of 15-year-old vacationer Courtney Wilkes came full circle Thursday when her killer, Steven Cozzie, was sentenced to die for the crime.

{mosimage}In the end, for the Wilkes’ family and those who had worked to bring Cozzie to justice, there was tearful satisfaction, but no joy.

“There’s not  winner here,” Toni Wilkes, Courtney’s mother, said as she and her husband, Cordy, left a Walton County Courtroom in which they’d spent many painful hours this summer during Cozzie’s trial. “We’re sorry for all involved.”

A very business-like Circuit Court Judge Kelvin Wells said he’d gone through each argument Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore had provided for putting Cozzie to death and weighed every reason defense attorneys had proposed for sparing the 23-year-old Seagrove Beach resident.

As he annunciated the “aggravators” versus the “mitigators” it was clear the fear, pain and agony Wilkes had suffered as she was strangled, beaten and dragged into a dry swamp area to be raped and killed weighed heavily in the judge’s decision.

“It is hereby ordered that you be sentenced to death as to count one, premeditated murder,” Wells said.

He also sentenced Cozzie to life sentences for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and for kidnapping, and to 30 years for aggravated child abuse.

Afterward, the Wilkes family embraced Elmore and the several Walton County law enforcement officers who had come for the sentencing.

The vicious crime, hours of preparation for court and arduous trial experience that included a criminal phase, a death sentence phase and a required Spencer Hearing had created an evident bond between local authorities and the Wilkes, residents of Lyons,  a rural South Georgia community.

“From my perspective, this is the end of the first chapter of one of the saddest cases I’ve ever had to handle,” veteran prosecutor Elmore said after the sentencing. “And I’ve had to handle some sad cases.”

The defendant looked resigned, almost, to his fate. He showed no emotion as he was processed after court had been adjourned.

Cozzie did glance over at three family members as he was led from the courtroom. Huddled on the front row of the courtroom with the defense team of Sharon Wilson and Spiro Kypreos, they did not appear to acknowledge his look as they consoled one another.

Wilson and Kypreos shepherded the Cozzie family in silence from the Walton County Courthouse.

Toni Wilkes said that her family began serving its sentence in this case “when we lost our little girl two years and four months ago.”

“Now we want to go home and start living our lives again,” she said.

They were leaving with a Florida community’s best wishes.

“I hope Courtney’s family can have some peace and move on with their lives,” Elmore said.

Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson was also in the courtroom Thursday. He too embraced the Wilkes’ family after the verdict was read.

But, like everyone else in the courtroom, he could find no reason to celebrate the death sentence.

“I don’t take any joy with this sentence being handed down,” he said. “But I am in complete agreement with this sentence being handed down.”

Under Florida law, the death sentence is automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court.  Officials say it could take up to 25 years for the appeals process and for the court's sentence to be carried out.

A video report is available at