South Florida

Feds plan to drop child-porn charges against autistic Miami man

Tony Rodriguez
Tony Rodriguez Handout

A federal prosecutor said he will drop Internet child-pornography charges against an autistic Miami man with an IQ of 73 after a court-appointed psychologist found he was mentally “incompetent” to stand trial.

“We will be seeking dismissal of this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kobrinski told U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro on Friday.

Ungaro appointed the psychologist, Vanessa Archer, with input from prosecutors and the defense after expressing a lack of confidence in a federal prison psychologist’s finding that Alberto “Tony” Rodriguez was competent to assist in his case. Whichever way Archer came down, both sides were obligated to accept her decision, the judge noted.

Rodriguez, who was charged in late 2014, has been embroiled in a legal odyssey over his mental capacity to stand trial. Rodriguez, who was granted a $50,000 bond and is living with his parents, faced up to 20 years in prison on charges of downloading child-porn images over the Internet.

But while the 25-year-old Rodriguez will now be spared prosecution in the federal system, the judge continued to express frustration because both sides have been unable to find proper mental health treatment for him. They have to return to her court on June 3 with a plan to ensure Rodriguez would no longer download unlawful pornographic images and would not pose a possible danger to himself or the public.

“I would love to see some kind of plan that would give me comfort that Mr. Rodriguez is not engaging in the kind of activities that brought him here ... and will never do so,” Ungaro said at Friday’s hearing.

Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Joel Hirschhorn, who has worked on the case pro bono, said a possible scenario would be for Miami-Dade prosecutors to charge his client anew and then work out a pretrial diversion program so he could take advantage of mental-health therapy in the state system.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Hirschhorn told the judge.

The defendant’s parents, Maria and Albert Rodriguez, said they were greatly “relieved” by the federal prosecutor’s decision, but still realized the long road ahead for their son.

The mother said she has encountered repeated rejection in her search for mental health therapy for her son, saying that treatment centers always inquire if her son has been convicted or served his sentence yet. Her inquirers are further complicated by the fact that Rodriguez is autistic.

“There’s nothing out there for him,” Maria Rodriguez said after the hearing.

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

In December, Ungaro threw out a magistrate judge’s decision that the competency of Rodriguez — who had initially been deemed incompetent by a Miami psychologist — was restored after he completed a legal course and testing by a psychologist with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Ungaro found the prison psychologist's expertise in evaluating defendants with autism “quite limited” and ordered that a “neutral expert” with this specialty analyze him. Enter Archer, the Miami psychologist. Her evaluation of Rodriguez, which was not released, contradicted the prison psychologist’s decision.