Miami-Dade County

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

Tony Rodriguez
Tony Rodriguez Family Handout

An autistic Miami man with an IQ of 73 is mentally “incompetent” to stand trial on charges of downloading images of child pornography over the Internet, according to a court-appointed psychologist who recently evaluated him.

U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro indicated on Friday that she will likely adopt that recommendation, but asked psychologist Vanessa Archer to determine whether the defendant, Alberto “Tony” Rodriguez, poses a danger to himself or the community.

The judge also told federal prosecutors and Rodriguez’s attorney that they need to come up with a plan for his permanent release if she finds the 25-year-old is indeed mentally incapable of assisting in his own defense.

“We’re working on a plan that will hopefully make him a productive person and provide the therapy he needs to get on with his life,” said the defendant’s lawyer, Joel Hirschhorn, after Friday’s brief hearing. Hirschhorn, who has worked on the case pro bono, hopes that Rodriguez can continue to live with his parents while he receives treatment and finds some type of job.

In the digital age, federal prosecutions of defendants accused of downloading, possessing and sharing Internet images of minors having sex with adults are common across the country. But Rodriguez’s case is highly unusual because of his unusual personal profile.

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

In December, Ungaro threw out a magistrate’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.

But 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.

Expressing her frustration at a December hearing, Ungaro declared: “I think that we have not advanced an inch and we need to move the ball ahead.”

The judge ordered Rodriguez’s defense team and the U.S. attorney’s office to recommend three psychological experts. In January, Ungaro appointed Archer, a Coral Gables psychologist, to determine whether Rodriguez “presently suffers from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.”

Ungaro overruled her colleague, Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes. In November, she found that Rodriguez’s competency was restored to stand trial after undergoing a psychological evaluation at a North Carolina federal prison to gauge his ability to assist in his own defense.

Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Hirschhorn, challenged the prison psychologist’s conclusion with the testimony of two South Florida psychologists who found that his client is a high-functioning autistic, emotionally immature and incapable of reasoning.