South Florida

Judge finds autistic Miami man ‘incompetent’ to stand trial on child-porn charges

Tony Rodriguez
Tony Rodriguez

Tony Rodriguez, an autistic Miami man with an IQ of 73, is no longer a criminal defendant facing trial on charges of downloading child porn.

The 25-year-old is finally free after two years under indictment, thanks to a federal judge who found him “incompetent” to assist in his own defense.

Rodriguez’s mother, Maria, cried in court Wednesday when U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro asked her how she felt about the decision and about placing her son in a group home in Homestead that “addresses behavioral excesses” under the supervision of the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

“She was 100 percent on board,” said Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Alexander Strassman, who worked on the case pro bono with prominent Miami attorney Joel Hirschhorn. “She started crying and thanked the judge for giving Tony a chance.”

Charged in late 2014, Rodriguez was embroiled in a legal odyssey over his mental capacity to stand trial. Rodriguez, who was granted a $50,000 bond, faced up to 20 years in prison on charges of downloading child-porn images over the internet. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kobrinski said that in light of the judge’s decision, he will now dismiss the charges — paving the way for the removal of Rodriguez’s electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet in the courtroom Wednesday.

In the digital age, federal prosecutions of defendants accused of downloading, possessing and sharing images of minors having sex with adults are common. But Rodriguez’s case was highly unusual because of his personal profile. Two South Florida psychologists hired by the defense found that Rodriguez is high-functioning autistic, emotionally immature and incapable of reasoning.

Last December, Ungaro, the judge, dramatically changed Rodriguez’s destiny after she expressed a lack of confidence in a federal prison psychologist who found he was competent to stand trial. With input from the defense and the U.S. attorney’s office, the judge appointed a Miami psychologist, Vanessa Archer, who reached the opposite conclusion — that Rodriguez was mentally incompetent to assist in his own defense.

With that opinion accepted by both sides — and the indictment on track to be dismissed — the next challenge was finding a local group home to accommodate the special needs of Rodriguez, who was living with his parents.

In her latest order, Ungaro found that Rodriguez “is not a ‘sexually dangerous person’ and that he does not pose a threat to another.” But she also urged “the parties to work together to find a placement for the defendant that will include close supervision to prevent him from accessing the internet and from engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct.”

Enter the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which offered Angel Heart Group Home in Homestead.

According to a court filing, agency representatives said the home provides a “level of service that addresses behavioral excesses that are dangerous and/or have resulted in arrest and confinement by law enforcement.”

They also said Rodriguez “would be closely supervised at all times, that a safety plan designed to protect [him] and the public would be implemented, and that [he] would have no access to computers or to minors.”