Jimmy Ryce killer to be executed Feb. 12, governor’s office says

The South Miami-Dade farmhand who raped, murdered and dismembered 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce almost two decades ago will be executed at 6 p.m. Feb. 12, Gov. Rick Scott’s office announced Thursday.

Juan Carlos Chavez was convicted of the 1995 murder that shocked Florida, sparked nationwide efforts to improve searches for missing children and led to the passage of a law that allows the state to indefinitely detain sexual predators.

Chavez, 46, will be executed by lethal injection at the Florida State Prison in Starke, Scott announced.

“I just received the news that justice will finally be done in the murder of my son, Jimmy, on September 11, 1995,” Don Ryce, the boy’s father, said in a statement Thursday. “I feel a combination of sadness and relief. I hope this sends a message to predators that this behavior will not go unpunished.”

The Ryce family was living in the Redland when Jimmy disappeared Sept. 11, 1995, near his school-bus stop.

The search for the boy riveted South Florida and terrified parents. Hundreds of volunteers joined the search. His family held frequent press conferences.

Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles urged the public to help find Jimmy. Walmart issued missing-children bulletins.

But the search turned to mourning when Chavez’s employer found Jimmy’s book bag in the trailer where the farmhand was living. His parents rushed back to Miami-Dade after taping an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s television show.

Jimmy’s dismembered remains were found sealed in cement-filled pots behind Chavez's home.

Chavez confessed to kidnapping the boy at gunpoint, driving him to the remote trailer on a horse farm, raping him, then shooting him when the boy tried to escape.

Because of pervasive publicity, Chavez’s 1998 trial was moved to Orlando. At trial, Chavez claimed his confession, elicited over 50 hours of police questioning, was coerced. He tried to blame his employer’s son for the murder. He claimed he had been afraid to report the crime because he was a counterrevolutionary in his native Cuba and feared for his life if he were deported.

Jurors rejected his claims, and after less than seven hours of deliberations, convicted him of murder, sexual battery and kidnapping.

At the sentencing, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marc Schumacher pointed to the savage manner in which the boy was murdered. On at least two occasions during his kidnapping, Chavez said Jimmy asked whether he was going to be killed. Chavez said he refused to say.

“The defendant, Juan Carlos Chavez, by his actions has forfeited his right to live among us," Schumacher said. “There can be no doubt that Samuel James Ryce lived every minute of the last few hours of his life with the fear of death.”

Ryce’s parents became crusaders for child victims, and met with then-President Bill Clinton as he signed an order allowing the posting of missing children’s photos in federal buildings.

Claudine Ryce and her husband, a labor lawyer, created a foundation in her son’s name, helping schools develop “stranger-danger” programs, donating tracking bloodhounds to police departments, supporting the parents of abducted children, and pushing for anti-predator legislation.

They also pushed for the landmark and often-controversial 1998 Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows the state to indefinitely detain violent sexual predators who have completed their sentences under civil law until they can prove they are rehabilitated.

Claudine Ryce died of a heart attack in 2009. Martha Ryce, Jimmy’s sister, committed suicide at age 35 in December 2012. Both had longed to see Jimmy’s killer put to death.

The appeals process for Chavez moved relatively quickly compared to many other cases.

In 2007, his former defense attorney, Art Koch, claimed that he provided shoddy representation. Koch testified that he was on medication at the time, instructed Chavez to lie on the stand and insisted that then-Public Defender Bennett Brummer would not allow him to vigorously defend Chavez.

But Judge Schumacher denied the claim, saying Koch “is not a credible witness.”

In June 2009, the Florida Supreme Court rejected Chavez’s arguments that he did not receive adequate legal help and did not understand the American justice system when he waived his right to remain silent.

“It’s a vindication of the excellent work we did,” retired Miami-Dade Detective Pat Diaz, the case’s lead investigator, said Thursday. “The evidence was overwhelming. He shot Jimmy in the back and he didn’t die immediately. One of the worst crimes that could ever happen.”