Toni Wilkes, the mother of 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 with “the lifeguard dude” who had become a casual acquaintance during the Wilkes’ weeklong vacation at the Beachcrest condominiums in Seagrove Beach.
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For 15-year-old Courtney, it was the first boy or man she’d been allowed to spend time alone with, Toni Wilkes said.
“She was not allowed to date until she was 16. She never even asked,” her mother said.
The Wilkes family watched Courtney walk off with the man they would come to know as 21-year-old Steven Cozzie. Some five hours later they would learn that she had been killed and Cozzie had been charged with murder.
The trial began about 2 p.m. Tuesday after a day and a half was spent selecting a jury. It is expected to take two weeks.
Cozzie, who wore glasses and a crew cut in court, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. He also is charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and child abuse.
Prosecutor Bobby Elmore made sure in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon that jurors knew just how brutal Courtney Wilkes’ death had been. He said evidence would show beyond any reasonable doubt that Cozzie killed her.
“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’ body, Elmore said.
The crushing blows to the skull ended the life of the girl Cozzie had strangled nearly to death with his shirt, drug into the bushes off a nature trail, beaten, stripped and raped, Elmore told the jury.
Although those in the courtroom had been warned against outbursts, Wilkes family members had to walk out twice during Elmore’s opening statement, some of them sobbing openly.
Elmore furthered his argument with photos, including those of the crime scene and Courtney Wilkes’ ravaged body that drew an objection from defense attorney Spiro Kypreos.
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, 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. 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 after being urged later by an Internet chat room friend and a relative to step forward, he took Walton County sheriff’s deputies to the body.
According to statements given much later by Cozzie, Spencer held a gun on him and forced him to kill the young vacationer.