Chavez v. State

Citation832 So.2d 730
Decision Date21 November 2002
Docket NumberNo. SC94586.,SC94586.
PartiesJuan Carlos CHAVEZ, Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida

Robert Augustus Harper, Steven Brian Whittington, and Jason Michael Savitz of Robert Augustus Harper Law Firm, P.A., Tallahassee, FL, for Appellant.

Richard E. Doran, Attorney General, and Scott A. Browne, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, FL, for Appellee.


The opinion issued in this case on May 30, 2002, is withdrawn, and the following revised opinion is substituted in its place. We have on appeal the judgment and sentence of the trial court imposing the death penalty upon Juan Carlos Chavez. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgments and sentences under review.

Jimmy Ryce's Disappearance

On the afternoon of September 11, 1995, nine-year-old Samuel James ("Jimmy") Ryce disappeared after having been dropped off from his school bus at approximately 3:07 p.m. at a bus stop near his home in the Redlands, a rural area of south Miami Dade County. An extensive and well-publicized search of the area followed, but failed to locate the child.

At that time, the defendant, Juan Carlos Chavez, was living in a trailer on property owned by Susan Scheinhaus. Chavez worked as a handyman for the Scheinhaus family, and was permitted to use their Ford pickup truck to run errands or do other work for the family. As part of his duties, Chavez frequently cared for horses owned by the Scheinhaus family, but housed on property owned by David Santana, which contained an avocado grove. There was also a trailer on that property, referred to throughout Chavez's trial as the "avocado grove trailer" or the "horsefarm trailer."1 In August or September of 1995, Mrs. Scheinhaus reported to the police several times that items (including a handgun and some jewelry) were missing from her residence. Although she suspected Chavez, she lacked evidence of his culpability. She testified at trial that, in November, she had decided to obtain the evidence required to pursue her claim. With the help of a locksmith, on December 5, 1995, while Chavez was away for the day, Mrs. Scheinhaus and her son, Edward Scheinhaus ("Ed"), entered the trailer located on her property which Chavez occupied. She found the handgun—which she later identified in court as a gun she had purchased in April of 1989—in plain view on a counter opposite the trailer door.

As Mrs. Scheinhaus continued to look inside the trailer, she discovered, in the closet area, a book bag which was partially open. Looking inside the bag, she saw papers and books. The work appeared to be in a child's handwriting, and she noticed the name "Jimmy Ryce." She also observed this name on one of the books.2 When Mrs. Scheinhaus asked her son to look at the items, he also recognized the child's name.

As a result of this discovery, Mrs. Scheinhaus notified the FBI. When Chavez returned to the Scheinhaus residence at about 7:15 on the evening of December 6, armed FBI agents quickly surrounded and secured him. After being patted down, he agreed to go with Metro Dade Police officers, who were also present, to the station for questioning.

Chavez's Detention

Chavez was involved in a questioning process that was punctuated by regular refreshment, food, bathroom breaks and a rest period, and interspersed with two outings returning to the Scheinhaus and Santana properties in southern Miami Dade County. Although Chavez was first brought to the police station on the night of December 6, he did not sleep until shortly after midnight on December 7.3 Detective Luis Estopinan, who was bilingual, conducted most of the questioning, although other officers also participated. Various police detectives, an FBI agent, Mrs. Scheinhaus and an independent interpreter all had opportunities to observe Chavez at various times throughout this period. Chavez was consistently described as alert and articulate during this time, and no one observed police detectives mistreating Chavez in any way throughout the period of questioning. He received repeated warnings and instructions in accordance with Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), and indicated that he fully understood them on four occasions during the period of interrogation.

Over the course of the interrogation, and after having been repeatedly advised of his Miranda rights and knowingly waiving them, Chavez provided several versions of his involvement in Jimmy's disappearance. As law enforcement officers engaged in a contemporaneous investigation of Chavez's changing narratives, he agreed to accompany officers on two occasions to visit the horse farm property and the Scheinhaus property, where he showed them the location of the events he had recounted had transpired. On those occasions, Chavez was asked to reveal where the boy's remains were located, to permit Jimmy's family to have closure.

After the physical evidence resulting from this contemporaneous investigation totally discredited each version of events which Chavez had initially proposed, Chavez agreed to tell the truth. However, Chavez explained that, before he would disclose the location of Jimmy's remains, he wanted the officers to guarantee that he would receive the death penalty. Estopinan advised Chavez that he could not guarantee that the death penalty would be imposed. However, Chavez continued to talk, asserting that the events would not have happened had he not been sexually battered by a relative in Cuba. Estopinan told Chavez that he "felt that it was time for him to be truthful and tell us what really happened to Jimmy, and ... went back and began to ask him about Jimmy and where Jimmy was located. We wanted to find Jimmy."

A break followed this inquiry and then Chavez reiterated to Sergeant Jimenez the most recent account which he had given Estopinan. Chavez then went to the restroom for another break and, upon returning to the interview room, informed the officers that they were now going to hear the truth: "[W]hat do you want to know? I'll tell you what happened to Jimmy Ryce."

Chavez proceeded to admit to Estopinan and Jimenez that he had abducted Jimmy at gunpoint, traveled to the horse ranch, and sexually assaulted Jimmy before finally shooting him. Estopinan explained that the officers would need details from Chavez,4 and requested permission to take a sworn statement. Chavez agreed to continue the questioning, and Estopinan and Jimenez "began to get details" about what had happened to Jimmy Ryce. At trial, Estopinan testified regarding the final version of Chavez's statement.

Chavez said that he had observed young children playing in water on his way home from Home Depot at approximately 3 p.m. Some of the boys were wearing just their underwear, and "as he saw the young boys wearing just the[ir] underwear, he took an interest in them." After observing the children, Chavez drove off, but returned a short while later, because he "still had a mental picture of what happened, meaning that he saw the young boys in their underwear by the canal bank, and decided that he wanted to take another look." Estopinan testified:

And while this is occurring, he was driving on the avenue, he sees a young—he sees a figure of a person, and then he realizes it was a young boy that he saw. At the same time he sees the young boy who later turns out to be Jimmy Ryce, again he's thinking about the young boys who are at the canal bank.

He said at this point he's feeling something sexual and he wants to—he is—what he's doing, he's doing picture— what he explains to me is that he has a mental picture in his mind of the young boys in the canal with their underwear and he's also picturing Jimmy Ryce the young boy, and what he does as he's driving the pickup truck in the opposite direction of Jimmy Ryce, he said at the time he had with him the Scheinhaus revolver, the Taurus, .38 caliber. And he said at this time Jimmy is walking on the left side of the road, and what he did is driving on the opposite side, he begins to drive on the opposite side of the traffic and drives and stops right in front of Jimmy Ryce causing him to stop.

The minute that Jimmy stops, he stops the truck, he gets out of the truck with the gun in his hand and tells Jimmy at gunpoint, do you want to die. And Jimmy made a comment to him, no. And he told Jimmy in English to get inside the truck. And Jimmy responds by getting into the truck via the driver's side door.
Once Jimmy is inside the pickup truck, he tells him to—Jimmy removes his backpack and puts it between his legs and he Chavez gets into the truck with Jimmy, still holding the handgun. It's at that point he takes the revolver and he places it underneath his lap and tells Jimmy to put his head down so Jimmy wouldn't be seen by anyone. And at that point he tells me that he drives back to the horse ranch where the trailer was located.
He told me that Jimmy left his backpack inside the pickup truck. Once they both exit the pickup truck, both him and Jimmy at his direction they go inside the trailer that's located inside the horse ranch. He goes on to explain that once inside the trailer he tells Jimmy to sit down on the bed. Jimmy complies. And that he sits on a black office chair close to Jimmy by the entrance and he begins to talk to Jimmy, he notices that Jimmy is, he's nervous and he's scared and Jimmy begins sobbing. And while this is occurring, Jimmy began to ask him, why did you take me? And Chavez explains to him, what he does, he begins to ask, he wants Jimmy to answer his own questions, well, why do you think I took you, things to that effect. He wants Jimmy to answer his own questions. He goes on to explain that at this point he feels like doing something sexual and that he tells Jimmy to remove his clothing. He said Jimmy complied by removing his shirt, his shorts, his sneakers and he wasn't sure

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