Kenneth Ray Jackson was scheduled to be sentenced this week after having been convicted of raping and killing Cuc Thu Tran, a Seffner mother of three, in 2007. The hearing was rescheduled for June 5. A jury found Jackson guilty of first-degree murder last November and recommended the death penalty. After hearing from both the prosecution and the defense, a circuit judge will decide whether to impose the death penalty.
Tran had been jogging when Jackson attacked her. Tran’s bloodstained jogging clothes and sneakers were found Sept. 13, 2007, on a grassy berm at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on County Road 579 in Seffner. Her body was found in a stolen van set on fire in a field 14 miles away in Gibsonton. Her throat had been slashed.
Two former Hillsborough County jail inmates testified at trial that Jackson described the rape and murder to them in detail. A saliva DNA sample from Jackson matched DNA in semen recovered from Tran’s body.
He was convicted of first-degree murder, armed sexual battery, theft of the van and arson.
In a plea for a life sentence instead of execution, Jackson’s defense attorneys presented psychologists who said Jackson suffered from an antisocial personality disorder with psychotic tendencies. They theorized that an unhappy, unstable childhood lay behind the disorder. He was born to a 15-year-old girl, was raised by a drug-abusing grandmother, has an IQ of 75, reads at a first-grade level in the fifth grade, and couldn’t name one friend.
Eleven of the 12 jurors recommended the death penalty in November. Florida is currently the only state in which a trial court jury can recommend a death sentence by simple majority – all other states require a unanimous recommendation. Under the current procedure, a jury must first return a guilty verdict before the “penalty phase” of trial. After additional testimony and evidence is presented, the jury then considers sentencing and makes a recommendation to the court.
The final sentencing decision rests with the trial judge. A judge must give the jury’s recommendation “great weight” but may overrule a jury recommendation of death and sentence a criminal to life in prison. While possible, this scenario is very rare.