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.
“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.