Is autistic adult ‘competent’ to stand trial on child-porn charges in Miami?

Alberto “Tony” Rodriguez
Alberto “Tony” Rodriguez

When federal agents raided Alberto Rodriguez’s North Miami area home, the 24-year-old autistic man has said he had no idea idea why they were there, let alone what he had done wrong.

The feds came knocking a year ago to confiscate two laptop computers — one belonging to him, the other to his parents — because they were filled with images of men having sex with children that they say he had illegally downloaded from the Internet.

Rodriguez, who experts say has an IQ of 73, was asked by a prosecutor in a federal court competency hearing this week whether he knew he had committed a crime.

“Not at the time,” Rodriguez mumbled on the witness stand.

The prosecutor then asked him if he knew what child pornography was, and he blurted: “underage porn.”

A magistrate judge must now decide whether Rodriguez — who has the emotional and intellectual maturity of a 10- to 12-year-old child, but was “socially promoted” through school — is mentally competent to stand trial on cyber child-porn charges that could send him to prison for up to 20 years. To reach that conclusion, the judge must find that Rodriguez, who goes by the name “Tony,” demonstrates a “rational understanding” of the criminal charges, defense strategies and trial proceedings.

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. South Florida’s former chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has led investigations of such cases, became a defendant himself when FBI agents raided his home in Parkland and discovered hundreds of child-porn images on his computers. Anthony Mangione cut a plea deal and is serving nearly six years in prison — a relatively light sentence for this type of offense.

But Rodriguez’s case, compared to Mangione’s and many others, is highly unusual because of his unique personal profile.

For starters, Rodriguez surrendered to authorities in December after the federal raid at his parents’ home last September. Because of his mental deficiencies, he was granted bail in January under the supervision of his mother with strict conditions, including no access to the Internet.

In March, Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes ruled Rodriguez was “incompetent,” based on a court-appointed evaluation by a Miami psychologist. But as the U.S. attorney’s office pressed forward with a six-count indictment, Rodriguez had to undergo psychological evaluations while incarcerated at a federal prison for four months to determine whether his competency could be “restored” for trial.

He is only able to evaluate information in a concrete black-and-white fashion.

Dr. Jacqueline Valdes

Rodriguez was placed in the custody of North Carolina federal prison officials from April to July to take classes on basic legal concepts, assisting in his own defense and trial procedures as part of his psychological tests.

The outcome: “He achieved a score that is consistent with someone with no mental retardation and competency to stand trial,” Carlton Pyant, a prison psychologist, testified via a satellite hookup at Tuesday’s hearing. “He answered the questions correctly, consistently and precisely.”

But a South Florida neuropsychologist, who has volunteered her time to evaluate Rodriguez, gave a starkly different assessment. The report, by Dr. Jacqueline Valdes, says his low IQ places him in the range of “borderline impaired” with overall cognitive abilities in the fourth percentile of the population. It further shows his reading, math and other educational skills are at the third- and fourth-grade level of achievement.

Miami-Dade Public School records show officials waived his requirement to take Florida’s standardized assessment test known as the FCAT through North Miami High Senior School, where he graduated with a 2.0 grade-point average and was given a special diploma.

Miami-Dade Public Schools psychologists, as well as Rodriguez’s parents, misdiagnosed his autistic condition as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, according to Valdes.

Valdes testified on Tuesday that he has “high-functioning autism,” meaning that he can care for himself, including bathing, dressing, eating and doing rote things — but he is anti-social, avoids eye contact, has speech problems and cannot reason. He also has no outside interests, such as driving, dating or getting a job. Valdes said his only interests are watching cartoons for young children, playing video games and looking up child pornography — though he does not have a “deep understanding” as to why he got in trouble.

He achieved a score that is consistent with someone with no mental retardation and competency to stand trial.

Prison psychologist Carlton Pyant

Valdes said she evaluated Rodriguez after his parents called her following the federal raid at their home in September 2014. Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Joel Hirschhorn, asked Valdes whether his standing trial on criminal charges would be a daunting challenge.

“Yes,” testified Valdes. “He is only able to evaluate information in a concrete black-and-white fashion.”

Valdes said, for example, that if Rodriguez were asked the metaphorical meaning of a “fork in the road,” he would think it was an actual utensil.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kobrinski challenged Valdes, saying that when she was asked by Rodriguez’s parents to evaluate him, it was not to determine his competency to stand trial.

Valdes agreed, noting that at the time, the Rodriguez family’s North Miami area home had been raided but no arrest was made.

“The parents were overwhelmed with the problems of their son,” Valdes said, so they reached out to her. “They did not know what was going on with the computers.”

Hirschhorn, the defense attorney, also questioned longtime Miami psychologist Michael Rappaport, who evaluated Rodriguez in March and September.

“It was very obvious when I saw him for the first time that he had very serious cognitive problems,” testified Rappaport, who also has volunteered his time on the case. “I came to the conclusion that he is not competent to stand trial, and he could not be restored to competency or be made competent.”

Hirschhorn, who is representing Rodriguez for free, asked the psychologist if the defendant could testify on his own behalf. Rappaport said no, citing the defendant’s low intelligence, poor communication skills and autism.

It was very obvious when I saw him for the first time that he had very serious cognitive problems.

Psychologist Michael Rappaport

“He didn’t realize that child pornography was so bad until his father told him,” Rappaport testified. “He thought it was just pornography.”

Hirschhorn took the unusual step of putting his client on the witness stand to show his limited ability to listen, process and communicate.

Rodriguez gave quick, short and mumbled answers to questions ranging from the role of a jury at trial to his knowledge of simple algebra and geometry questions.

His various responses: “No, not really, don’t know, no idea.”

Kobrinski, the prosecutor, tried to show that Rodriguez did understand that watching child pornography was wrong.

“Your dad said to you, ‘You’re not going to do this again,’ ” the prosecutor reminded him. “And you said, ‘I’ll try.’ ”

After Rodriguez testified that he didn’t realize watching child porn was a crime, the prosecutor asked him if he recalled the age of the people having sex in the Internet images.

His abrupt response: “I don’t remember.”