Milberg's Musings: Justice, not closure

Juan Carlos Chavez scheduled to be executed for the murder of Jimmy Ryce


STARKE, Fla. – So this is the end of the story.  And we were there from the beginning.

That day Jimmy disappeared, we couldn't click his picture around Facebook, couldn't instantly put the collective call out on Twitter about a missing almost-10-year-old boy.  Instagram didn't exist either.  Did we even have cell phones?

That September afternoon in 1995 (it was September 11th, years before that date would take on a new meaning), Don and Claudine Ryce became their own community organizers.  And we responded.  Their desperation was real.  Back then, publicizing missing children was not as standard as it is today.  The Ryces made sure we noticed.

For three months, they kept at it.  And so did we, with them.  Jimmy became ours, too. Jimmy became everyone's missing son. 

In 1995, I was a new parent, instantly infused with the cosmic connection that every parent knows.  When Claudine pleaded for help in finding Jimmy, I felt that profound loss.  Putting up the emotional wall that all reporters have in the tool-box?  Impossible in this case. 

Cover it Live: The Execution of Juan Carlos Chavez

What no one could know, we and all those neighbors who joined to search for days and miles, is that after the first four hours, Jimmy was already gone.  Every other day of that 3-month search, Jimmy's remains were already concreted into planters, the end of a torturous ordeal whose details would emerge in the weeks and months following the arrest of Juan Carlos Chavez.

It was a Saturday morning in December when we learned they had the guy.  I was working weekends back then. I remember standing and pacing at my desk, calling one of my go-to homicide detectives at Miami-Dade police headquarters, hoping to flesh out some details.  Sitting still was not an option.  I had that adrenaline rush, about  to break the news of the big arrest, trying not to give in to the emotional gut kick that it would be news that Jimmy was gone.  The detectives were deep into questioning Chavez, skittish about telling even reporters they knew and trusted -- well aware they were on one of the biggest cases they would see in their careers.  I say "big" in the sense that Jimmy Ryce had become the poster child for every innocent, defenseless child brutalized by a criminal, a community's treasure, and they were hyper-aware that a future defense attorney would look to seize upon any mistake to help Chavez. 

The trial began, finally, three years later.  I covered it gavel to gavel, spending weeks in Orlando where it had been moved because of the difficulty finding jurors in Miami-Dade who didn't already want the man who killed Jimmy Ryce hung in a public square.   To this day, I remember watching the Ryces sitting and listening to every heartbreaking detail of their son's last hours, his pain, his fear, his confusion. 

The pictures of the concrete planters did me in. 

Some court observers were riveted on the testimony; I was riveted on parents who were resolute in being their son's physical presence in the court.  I now understand that part of what they were feeling was guilt.  As any parent will tell you, moms and dads always feel like they can swoop in and make it all better for their child.  And they internalize and shoulder the responsibility when they can't, no matter how unrealistic that may be.

Florida's Constitutional equivalent of that public hanging is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m.  Juan Carlos Chavez has a date with the lethal cocktail used by the state of Florida to administer the death penalty.  A cell phone line to the Governor's office will be open during the proceeding, in case of any last minute stay.

Justice has not been swift, but that is a function of the protections put into the judicial system where the death penalty is an option.  Relatively speaking, 18 years on death row is a shorter span that some inmates face. 

Jimmy's father has made clear, Chavez's death will mean justice, but not closure.  There is no closure for him.  Ever.  (WATCH interview with Don Ryce in its entirety: Part I -- Part II)

See you later from the prison near Starke.

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