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Court orders hearing in sex offender case

They are often cast as the "worst of the worst," sexually violent predators who, after finishing prison, long remain in state custody under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

Too long, in one man's case, according to the Florida Supreme Court, which on Friday ordered a thorough vetting of the case and examination of Florida's handling of sexually violent people committed under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

Those sex offenders and predators subject to the law are to receive a civil commitment trial where a judge or jury decides whether they should be committed after release from prison.

In the case the high court reviewed, Ronald Morel has gone eight years without that commitment trial and is still detained in state custody after his release from prison in 2002.

Morel also argued that, while being detained, he is unable to receive any treatment, which is key to his chance for release.

"We have determined that these matters are interrelated and present serious questions as to the functioning of our system for civil commitments and legality of Morel's continued detention," wrote the majority in the high court's split opinion.

Morel, 51, went to prison in 1994 for the kidnapping and rape of a Boca Raton woman who asked him for a ride to work. He was convicted in Broward County.

The Supreme Court ordered a full vetting of Morel's case there within the next 60 days.

The court's opinion did not address the constitutionality of the Jimmy Ryce Act. Passed in 1998, it was named in honor of the 9-year-old boy raped, murdered and dismembered by a sexual predator in Miami-Dade County. Predators can be released only if a judge finds they no longer are a danger to society.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland asked the Supreme Court to unravel a series of legal issues affecting sex offenders at the facility operated by GEO Group, a private prison and security firm, under contract with the state Department of Children and Families.

The law requires civil trials within 30 days after offenders are detained, but they often waive that right to gain time to obtain expert witnesses and evidence to challenge their commitment. The appeal judges noted that cases then tend to remain on hold for years.

"This case is an extreme example, but from our anecdotal experience, it is not unique," they wrote.

The United States Supreme Court has upheld the practice of involuntary civil commitment laws like the Ryce act, said Aaron Clemens, a public defender who has tried Ryce cases and is president of Palm Beach County's association of criminal defense lawyers.

The Florida Supreme Court's opinion sounds to him, Clemens said, like the justices are ensuring people do not wait an inordinate amount of time for their commitment trials.

"Eight years is a long, long time to wait in what essentially is a prison," Clemens said.

All those committed under the Ryce Act are sent to Florida's Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia . According to a July 2009 government report, the center housed 672 people - 222 of them detainees like Morel.

According to the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, there are five people from the county in "detained" status, and 22 who have been committed under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

Spokeswoman Sarah Alsofrom said prosecutors are aware of the opinion, and will coordinate a statewide response with other prosecutors.

The Broward County Ryce prosecutor handling Morel's case has said that while Morel has waited eight years, it is his own doing, because of his reluctance to take polygraph tests and subject himself to the trial.

Another problem is that trials are held in jurisdictions where offenders were convicted, often hundreds of miles from Arcadia.

The appeal judges, whose district includes Arcadia, concluded they were powerless to rule in Morel's case because Broward is in another appellate district.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.