Tale of two deaths

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Shortly after 8 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2014, Juan Carlos Chavez went to sleep. He never woke up. Aware of his circumstances and with apparent resignation — perhaps grateful that his lawyers extended his life two additional hours — he closed his eyes. He laid splayed on a gurney with I.V.s inserted into his veins and that dripped the poison that would kill him.

His victim’s father and brother, law-enforcement professionals and the media, witnessed Chavez’s death.

Jimmy Ryce, 9 years old, died alone except for his killer’s presence. His final hours ones of horror, rape and torture. Hearing the thump of helicopter blades of an aircraft dispatched to search for him, Jimmy tried to escape only to be struck by his assassin’s bullet. He then was dismemberment and buried in planters filled with concrete. It would be his resting place until his body was disinterred three months later.

Chavez lived in custody for more than 18 years (15 of them post-trial). He knew his death was coming. While his lawyers argued over the combination of chemicals that would end his life, he had the opportunity to contemplate and reflect upon his life and to bid farewell to family. He was given an opportunity to voice his final thoughts.

Jimmy never got to say good bye.

Florida State Prison in Starke lies in a remote corner of North Florida. It sits beyond fields and ramshackle homes. The drive takes one back at least 50 years, for little has changed here, except that Old Sparky has been swapped for the plastic tubes of an I.V. line.

Don Ryce made this trip with his sole surviving child, Ted. His wife, Claudine, and his daughter, Martha, like Jimmy became victims of Chavez. Don has become frailer, deep lines etched into his face. He walks supported by a cane, and his grief is beyond measure. Yet, he remains an individual of unfathomable strength.

Death for Chavez came in a sanitized and cloistered room, and not in the abandoned and dirty trailer where Jimmy died. Courts have been asked to pass upon the chemical compositions that will flow into killers’ veins to assure that their deaths are peaceful. There was no court to hear Jimmy’s pleas.

Chavez was less than 10 feet away from his victim’s father when he went to sleep. Separated by a glass window, Don watched as his son’s murderer closed his eyes and saw as his face became pale and then ashen.

It took about 15 minutes. The room in which the witnesses watched was solemn, silent. No one spoke, there was nothing to say.

Later, Don explained that he gained no pleasure from witnessing the execution, but it did allow him a small measure of relief. His feelings have been echoed by others in the community.

Perhaps this is why there should be a death penalty. It provides no deterrence. It punishes one person for the crime that led him to that end. The victim’s family is punished every day, and the killer’s execution offers little escape from their punishment.

Executions happen seemingly with increasing frequency. Most of the time the media little notes the event, and most people have no idea that in their name a life was extinguished. This death was different. Jimmy’s death touched a community. His killer’s execution brought back the months of searching and the pictures of a child holding a baseball bat aloft, the pain on Don and Claudine’s faces, the horrific circumstances of Jimmy’s demise and the trial.

Chavez was tried before a jury of his peers, who found him guilty and unanimously recommended death. Juries, perhaps the most democratic of institutions, are asked to weigh evidence and render verdicts.

In Florida, death-penalty cases are the only ones in which jurors are asked to determine the appropriate punishment. The jurors hear about aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances. They hear from the victim’s family and from the defendant’s family.

For most jurors it will be the most important decision they will ever make. A majority, seven jurors, is all that is required to pass the decision on to the shoulders of the court. It’s a decision the judge can accept or reject.

Florida’s Death Row now houses almost 400 people. The vast majority of them received recommendations of death with less than a unanimous verdict. Florida remains an outlier in this regard. Former state Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero has argued that it is time Florida gets in step with the rest of the country. By imposing a unanimous jury recommendation, the number of convicted on Death Row would diminish.

With fewer people sentenced to death, the process might be moved along quicker and the odds of an innocent individual subjected to such a sentence would be reduced. More important, perhaps there would be a societal recognition that executions should be reserved for the worst of the worst — those for whom not a single individual has found sufficient mitigation to overcome a death recommendation.

As a former prosecutor, I no longer tinker with the machinery of death and I remain conflicted about the death penalty. But I believe the requirement of a unanimous recommendation is an idea whose time has come.

Michael R. Band is the former chief assistant state attorney who led the prosecution in the Jimmy Ryce case. He was present when Juan Carlos Chavez was executed. He practices law in Miami.

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