Last appeal denied, 'evil' Chavez executed

jweaver@MiamiHerald.comFebruary 12, 2014 

STARKE — Juan Carlos Chavez, the South Miami-Dade sex predator who kidnapped, raped and killed 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce in an infamous 1995 murder, was executed Wednesday night.

Officials at Florida State Prison pronounced him dead at 8:17 p.m. on a damp, chilly evening in North Florida. “It’s closure. Justice has been served for an evil man,” said Pat Diaz, the retired Miami-Dade police detective who led the investigation into Jimmy’s murder.

The execution came after a tense delay of more than an hour as the U.S. Supreme Court considered, but ultimately denied, a last-minute request for a stay.

Strapped down in the death chamber, Chavez declined to say any last words, although he wrote out a last statement that will be made public later. The lethal injection process began at 8:03 p.m. and showed no signs of complications as Chavez fell into deep and fatal sleep.

Don Ryce, Jimmy’s father who has been a high-profile crusader against crime and sexual predators, remained stoic while witnessing the execution.

In all, 19 official witnesses were on hand, including Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill, and former prosecutor Michael Band, both of whom took Chavez to trial. Former Miami-Dade homicide sergeant Felix Jimenez was also on hand, as was one juror who helped convict Chavez in the 1998 trial.

The murder of the Redland boy, who disappeared from his school bus stop near his home, shook South Florida’s sense of security and spurred legislation allowing the state to indefinitely detain sexual predators.

Earlier in the day, Chavez’s only visitor was a “spiritual adviser.” His demeanor during the day was calm, a Florida corrections spokeswoman told reporters. His last meal included a ribeye steak, French fries, a fruit cup and strawberry ice cream, washed down with mango juice.

The notoriety of the case drew an unusually large media contingent. About two dozen news reporters, photographers and TV satellite trucks gathered under drizzling gray skies in a sprawling field across from the Florida State Prison.

Chavez, who spent nearly 16 years on Death Row, was the 12th inmate put to death in Florida since the start of 2012. The day started off with the Florida Supreme Court rejecting a last-minute bid to delay this evening’s scheduled execution. The state high court’s decision followed a federal judge’s ruling that also denied the 46-year-old Chavez’s request for an emergency stay.

Chavez’s lawyer, Robert Norgard, tried to persuade the Florida Supreme Court to reconsider Chavez’s argument that the sedative used as part of the cocktail of lethal drugs was ineffective as a pain-relieving anesthetic and therefore violated his constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

His lawyer filed an affidavit, by a University of Miami anesthesiologist David Lubarsky, to bolster his client’s latest claim on Tuesday. Norgard based that claim on the state high court’s decision to consider the same expert’s evidence in another Death Row inmate’s petition.

But the Florida Supreme Court concluded that Chavez should have presented this evidence when he had the opportunity before the justices rejected his previous bid for a stay on Jan. 31.

“This request for a stay on the eve of execution, supported by a declaration that was known to Chavez while state court proceedings were pending, constitutes a delaying tactic that is not supported by equitable considerations,” the state Supreme Court said in a two-page ruling.

For Chavez, a farmhand who confessed to the crime and was convicted at trial in 1998, the final word came early in the evening in the form of a terse denial from the nation’s highest court.

The disappearance of Jimmy — a bright kid with a passion for baseball and chess — on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 1995, shook South Florida’s sense of security and became a national story. It echoed a notorious child-kidnapping 14 years earlier, when 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Hollywood shopping center. Adam’s severed head was the only part of his body ever found.

Jimmy vanished after he exited a school bus a few blocks from his home in the Redland, a rural area with farms, ranches and large residential properties. His parents, both lawyers, were out of town on business. The Ryces, along with neighbors and volunteers, fellow St. Andrew’s parishioners, the FBI, Miami-Dade police, and other law-enforcement agencies launched a massive search.

The Ryces boosted a reward from $25,000 to $100,000 for any information on the whereabouts of their son. Posters and fliers with his picture were distributed throughout South Florida and beyond. The parents also went on the Oprah Winfrey talk show. But nearly three months later, there was still no sign of Jimmy.

Then, on Dec. 6, the owner of a horse farm near the Ryce’s home grew suspicious after a handyman living on her property stole a gun and some jewelry. Susan Scheinhaus and her son, Eddie, entered the farmhand’s trailer and found her belongings. They also discovered a brown Jansport knapsack with a suede bottom that fit the description of the book bag that belonged to Jimmy. It also contained his school books and papers.

Scheinhaus notified the FBI and Miami-Dade police, and they obtained a warrant to search the trailer for the backpack. Investigators also began interrogating the farmhand, Chavez, who had fled Cuba aboard a raft and worked as a mechanic in Hialeah before he was hired by the Scheinhaus family. Police questioned him for more than 50 hours, during which investigators say Chavez twice waived his Miranda rights and denied any involvement in Jimmy’s disappearance — until he finally broke down and confessed in a 61-page statement.

Chavez told Miami-Dade homicide investigators he grabbed Jimmy at gunpoint as he exited the school bus, put him in his pickup truck and took him to his trailer, where he raped him, according to the confession. When Jimmy tried to escape from his camper, Chavez shot him in the back, decapitated him, and dismembered his body, hiding the parts in concrete in three plastic planters buried in an avocado grove on the Scheinhaus’ horse farm.

His defense lawyer, Art Koch, argued the confession was impermissible because it was coerced and involuntary, saying detectives tricked him into waiving his right to remain silent.

But Chavez’s eventual confession — coupled with the discovery of the boy’s knapsack, the murder weapon, and the bullet that killed him — was permitted as evidence and clinched the case.

Miami-Dade’s lead homicide investigator in the Ryce case, Pat Diaz, said the boy’s murder was among the most “heinous” in his 33-year career.

“Making this case was life and death,” Diaz said. “There was no room for failure.”

Selecting a jury for the trial in Miami proved to be a stumbling block, so the circuit judge, Marc Schumacher, moved the proceeding to Orlando. The September 1998 trial was an emotional ordeal for the Ryce family and everyone else involved. The most jolting moments came when a female juror sobbed as a detective described Jimmy’s body parts in one of the planters, and Chavez denied his confession and blamed Scheinhaus’ son, Eddie, for the boy’s death.

After six-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the 12-person jury convicted Chavez of kidnapping, rape, and murder. The following month, jurors unanimously recommended the death penalty, which was imposed by Schumacher that November.

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