In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Death a sad reminder that Jimmy Ryce’s killer still lives

Juan Carlos Chavez has been on Death Row for 13 years and 39 days, an address where the average stay lasts 13 years and 80 days.

The average age of an executed prisoner in Florida is 44 years and 146 days. Chavez will turn 45 in March as his lawyers exhaust what will surely be his last futile appeals.

The numbers might make this particular death case seem unremarkable as the legal machinery plods through the usual judicial reviews required for a state execution. The Florida Supreme Court has twice considered and rejected his appeal claims and it seems unlikely that his lawyers will find much purchase in the federal courts. His execution has become inevitable.

Inevitable might be enough for most cases, but Juan Carlos Chavez did too much damage to this community, to a particular South Florida family, not to cause outrage at his longevity.

It was the death, on Dec. 30, of Martha Ryce that stirred these long-simmering emotions.

Normally, the suicide of a young woman would pass unremarked in these pages. Hers was different. It came with the melancholy realization that the killer of Jimmy Ryce, her little step-brother, had now outlived both Martha and her stepmother.

Both Martha, 35, and Claudine Ryce, who died of a heart attack in 2009 at age 66, had been activists in their Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction, pushing anti-predator legislation in Tallahassee, danger-awareness programs in schools, raising money for tracking dogs for police departments, providing support for the families of missing children.

Yet the author of their shared misery, the ghoulish impetus for their activism, the killer who devastated their family, has now outlived them both.

Of course, there are sound reasons for years-long, exhaustive legal safeguards before the courts finally sign off on an execution. Florida courts, more than most, have made grave errors, even in murder trials. Innocents, later cleared by new evidence or DNA analysis, have been convicted. The risks and time-consuming appeals and the legal expenses necessary to maintain the death penalty raise questions about the worth of the whole morbid enterprise.

Guilt in this case, however, has never been much in doubt. On Sept. 11, 1995, nine-year-old James Samuel Ryce went missing from near his home in the Redland. For three months, the search for little Jimmy traumatized South Florida. Parents were guarding their children like refugees in a war zone. Until the landlady of a farmhand named Juan Carlos Chavez discovered Jimmy’s school backpack in his trailer.

After offering up a number of meandering explanations, Chavez finally confessed. He told police, in considerable detail, how he had kidnapped and raped Jimmy, then shot him. How he had dismembered the body and submerged the remains in large planters capped with cement. Chavez begged police to make sure he got the death penalty.

Police found the murder weapon in his trailer. And the farm tool used to dismember the child. He was certainly the child’s killer. The legal questions, over these 14 years, have been over the admissibility of certain evidence, including his confession, elicited over a 54-hour interrogation. Chavez had tried, futilely, to recant at his trial. And he also lost his enthusiasm for his own execution.

His lawyers did manage, over the years, to raise some interesting appeal issues. In 2007, his original defense lawyer testified to his own ineffectual conduct in the 1998 trial. “I was on medication for vertigo and a hearing disorder. There were times that I had to go to bed early.” The lawyer said the medication left him confused and disoriented.

The claim was not enough to give Chavez a new trial. Mostly, it renewed the family’s pain. Jimmy’s parents, Don and Claudine Ryce, after sitting through the hearing, issued an angry statement: “Our son’s killer’s claims he did not get a fair trial are ludicrous. What isn’t fair is that Jimmy did not have a chance to grow up and do all the things he wanted to do.”

Claudine died two years later. And now Martha. Friends, posting happy memories and photographs of a pretty, perpetually smiling woman on the “Remembering Martha Ryce” Facebook page, seemed at a loss to explain her private despair.

But the trauma afflicting the Ryce family has long been a shared public hurt in South Florida. And it’s hard not to rant, however irrationally, about the depressing inequity now looming over us.

Claudine and Martha are gone. Chavez still lives.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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