Controversial sex-predator confinement upheld in Miami serial rapist case

Juan Vega
Juan Vega Florida Corrections

An appeals court decision involving a Miami serial rapist may rekindle debate over a Florida law that allows sexual predators to be detained indefinitely after their prison terms.

Two years ago, a jury chose not to commit Miami-Dade serial rapist Juan F. Vega to indefinite locked-down confinement after he finished 25 years in prison.

Despite the jury’s verdict, a judge nevertheless shipped Vega off to a secure therapy center for sexual predators — a legal first that drew indignation from defense lawyers.

Last week, a Miami-Dade appeals court upheld the decision of the judge, meaning Vega will remain at the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia. And because the Third District Court of Appeal did not issue a written opinion, defense lawyers will have a tougher time appealing the ruling.

“We’re committing Mr. Vega despite the fact that a jury said let him go,” said his defense lawyer, Andrew Rier. “And to not issue a written opinion is an injustice.”

The decision of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Migna Sanchez-Llorens was believed to be the first time in Florida that a court has sent a convicted sex predator into civil confinement over a jury’s verdict.

The Third DCA’s decision on Wednesday came just two weeks after a panel of judges heard oral arguments on Vega’s case.

Vega, 51, was committed under the 1998 Jimmy Ryce Act, a law that allows for the indefinite detention of sexual predators deemed too dangerous to be allowed back into society after serving their prison term. The law was named after a 9-year-old who was kidnapped, raped and killed in South Miami-Dade in a notorious case in 1995.

Under Florida law, as a sex offender or rapist is nearing the end of his prison term, the Florida Department of Children and Families evaluates the person and recommends to prosecutors whether he should be committed to civil confinement.

After release, the convict is placed in Arcadia pending a trial, which is considered a civil matter. They are not considered “defendants” but “respondents,” and are never housed in a jail.

Jurors at a trial must find by “clear and convincing evidence” that the person is a sexually violent predator. The verdicts have to be unanimous. If the jurors are deadlocked — but the majority wants to commit — prosecutors are afforded a new trial.

In Vega’s case, there was a 3-3 split — which defense lawyers believed was supposed to result in the person being automatically released from the Arcadia center.

The jury’s failure to reach a unanimous verdict surprised prosecutors, who almost always win the civil commitment trials. Sanchez-Llorens, saying Vega was a clear danger to society, ordered him committed on a “directed verdict” requested by prosecutors.

Vega’s crimes were undoubtedly vicious. In the early 1980s, he kidnapped women between the ages of 15 and 28 off the streets or bus stops, raping them in isolated wooded areas.

He was arrested in 1985 after a Miami-Dade detective, while interviewing a victim at the crime scene, spotted the man’s red truck drive by. In all, prosecutors said he was linked to attacks on six women. He pleaded guilty and agreed to a 30-year term, of which he served 25 years.

At the two-week civil trial, prosecutors said Vega tried to escape prison custody three times, once successfully. And three psychologists, in testimony and reports, said Vega suffers from mental disorders, including “sexual sadism” and a personality disorder.

His attorneys and a defense psychologist insisted that the state’s inexact science could not predict that Vega would commit more crimes if he were let out.