N.C. toughens sex-offender punishments

Gov. Mike Easley on Monday signed what was described as one of the toughest laws in the U.S. dealing with sex crimes against children.

The Jessica Lunsford Act was inspired by the 2005 rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who lived in Gaston County most of her life before moving to Florida, where she was killed. Easley signed the bill in the Gastonia City Hall as Lunsford's father, Mark, and other family members looked on.

“This is a very important day in the community,” said Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston. “It took a lot of time because we wanted to make sure we got it right. We believe it is right and that we've done the right thing.”

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said the children of North Carolina are safer because of the measure.

“It's among the toughest bills dealing with child predators in the United States,” he said.

North Carolina is now the 43rd state to have a version of Jessica's law.

The new bill imposes stricter penalties on sex offenders, making the minimum prison sentence 25 years for adults who commit certain sex crimes, including rape, against those younger than 13.

Easley said the most important element of the bill is the requirement that offenders have lifetime GPS monitoring.

“This will make certain we know where these people are,” he said.

John Couey, a convicted sex offender, kidnapped Jessica Lunsford from her Homosassa, Fla., home in February 2005. Lunsford's body was later found buried in a shallow grave in Couey's backyard. Police concluded that she was raped and buried alive. Couey was sentenced to death for Lunsford's murder.

Mark Lunsford became a national crusader for tougher sex-offender laws.

On Monday, growing tearful at one point, he described the signing of the bill named after his daughter as “definitely a joyous moment.” “It's a beautiful day,” Lunsford said. “Thank you for this effort for a little girl you never knew.”

After the signing, Easley posed for pictures with members of the Lunsford family and lawmakers.

Jessica Lunsford's aunt, Susan Lunsford of Gastonia, was thankful legislators proceeded with care before passing the bill this year.

“Sometimes you feel things are not moving fast enough,” she said. “But I'm glad they made sure there are no loopholes. My hope is that predators will really think about what they are facing and never hurt a child.”