After Juan F. Vega completed 25 years in prison for a series of violent rapes and kidnappings, Miami-Dade jurors were asked to decide whether he posed a danger to society if released.
Their decision surprised courthouse observers: Let him go, they said earlier this month. Vega should not be confined to a locked-down therapy center for sexual predators.
What happened next was equally surprising: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Migna Sanchez-Llorens disregarded their decision and ordered Vega into indefinite civil confinement anyway, drawing howls of protest from defense attorneys.
Sanchez-Llorens’ decision is believed to be the first time in Florida that a judge had sent a convicted sex predator into civil confinement over a jury’s verdict. The unique legal battle, bound to be settled at a higher court, has rekindled debate over the Florida law that allows sexual predators to be detained indefinitely after their prison terms.
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“To consider overturning the finding of this verdict just to keep Juan Vega in is an insult,” defense lawyer Andrew Rier told the judge, adding later: “Are we really going to say that our desire to keep Vega in is more important than following the rights of the jury in Dade County?”
But after listening to psychologists who deemed him a risk to re-offend if released, the judge said, “There is no reasonable evidence upon which a jury could rule in favor” of Vega.
The evidence “points to but one possible conclusion: that [Vega] is a sexually violent predator,” Sanchez-Llorens wrote in her order.
For now, Vega remains at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, as lawyers meet Monday for another hearing.
Vega, 49, was committed under the 1998 Jimmy Ryce Act, a law that allows for the indefinite detention of sexual predators deemed too dangerous to be allowed back into society after serving their prison term.
The law was named after 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce, who was kidnapped, raped and killed in South Miami-Dade in 1995.
Currently, there are 569 people in civil confinement, with an additional 97 awaiting their trials, according to state figures.
The process works like this:
When a convict is near finishing a prison term for a sexual offense, the Florida Department of Children & Families evaluates the person and recommends to prosecutors whether he or she should be committed to civil confinement.
After release, the convict is placed in Arcadia pending a trial, considered civil. They are not considered “defendants” but “respondents,” and are never housed in a jail.
At trial, jurors must find “by clear and convincing evidence” that the person is a sexually violent predator. Verdicts must be unanimous. If the jury is hung but a majority wants the convict committed to the therapy center, then a mistrial is declared and prosecutors can seek a new trial.
A standard jury instruction tells jurors that if there is a 3-3 split — as is what happened in Vega’s case — it automatically results in the person being released from the commitment center.
Critics have long maintained that the law unfairly punishes those who have already paid their debt to society, and allows prosecutors to use “pseudo-science” to predict future crimes.
“Jurors tend to be sympathetic to the state. Why risk having an individual out who might recidivate when they may be treated — allegedly?” asked John Selden, a Daytona Beach assistant public defender who handles Ryce cases.
The success rate for prosecutors is very high. During the past three years, 307 convicts have been committed under the Ryce Act, with 20 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to DCF statistics.
In that same time period, only 26 convicts statewide were released after winning at trial. That includes six in Broward and one in Miami-Dade.
Attorney Jack Fleischman, of West Palm Beach, said he has won at least five Ryce cases and nearly all of the clients have remained trouble free, and some have thrived.
Others have not fared well. The most high-profile: In 1999, rapist Marlin Leach became the first person tried under the Ryce Act in Palm Beach. Jurors decided he should not be committed.
But in 2008, Leach, now 41, broke into a Riviera Beach home and kidnapped and raped a woman. He is now serving a life sentence in prison.
Also in 2008, jurors refused to commit door-to-door salesman Marcus T. Davis after he finished an 11-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting a Fort Myers woman. After he moved to Georgia, police said Davis tried to rape his sister’s friend.
Jurors acquitted him at trial. Later, when allegations arose that he molested a young girl, police arrested him for failing to register as a sex offender.
He’s now doing two years in prison, scheduled for release next year.
Other times, released convicts return to prison on technical probation violations.
In 2007, jurors declined to send convicted child molester Eddie Lee Sadler, of East Naples, to the commitment center. Three months later, Sadler was returned to prison after he violated his parole for being away from home past curfew.
Robert Sazone, a convicted child molester released from confinement by a jury, was sent back to prison for 10 years after he helped his mother string up Christmas lights at her home. The house, it turned out, doubled as a part-time school — a violation of his probation.
As for Vega, Miami-Dade police said that in the early 1980s, he plucked women — between the ages of 15 and 28 — off the streets or bus stops, raping them in isolated wooded areas.
Vega was arrested in 1985 after a Miami-Dade detective, while interviewing a victim at the crime scene, spotted the man’s red truck drive by. In all, prosecutors said he was linked to attacks on six women. He pleaded guilty and agreed to a 30-year term, of which he did 25 years.
At the two-week-long civil trial, prosecutors said Vega tried to escape prison custody three times, once successfully. And three psychologists, in testimony and reports, said Vega suffers from mental disorders, including “sexual sadism” and a personality disorder.
His attorneys and a defense psychologist insisted that the state’s inexact science could not predict that Vega would re-offend if he were let out.
The judge ordered Vega committed on a “directed verdict” requested by prosecutors.
Gene Zenobi, the head of Miami’s publicly funded Regional Counsel defense office, said the judge’s decision flies in the face of rules crafted over the years with the help of committees of lawyers on both sides.
“I have trouble accepting that a judge can unilaterally circumvent the rules laid out by the Supreme Court,” said Zenobi, who is not involved in the case. “What she did was rather unprecedented.”
Vega will appeal the judge’s decision. But prosecutors say the judge made the right call.
“It was a wise choice,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “She sided with the public. She wasn’t going to put kids at risk.”