“Nineteen years ago, Juan Carlos Chavez was faced with a choice.”
Don Ryce spoke to a crowd of reporters and TV cameras in the windy cold on a flat field across from the Florida State Prison near Starke.
He said it was Chavez’s choice, murdering Ryce’s son Jimmy instead of releasing him after Chavez kidnapped and sexually assaulted the 9-year-old in 1995, that led dozens of people to gather in the field Thursday and await word of Chavez’s execution.
Ryce, who with his wife became an advocate for stricter penalties on sex offenders following his son’s murder, issued a warning to future child molesters: don’t kill the child.
“If you do, people will not forget, they will not forgive,” Ryce said. “We will hunt you down, and we will put you to death.”
Witnesses to the execution said Chavez was pronounced dead at 8:17 p.m. He was 46, around the average age for an executed inmate, according to Florida Department of Corrections documents. An inmate’s final day features a regimented schedule that includes a last meal, as well as the opportunity to consult with a spiritual adviser.
Chavez’s death, making him the second man executed by the state of Florida this year, was delayed by a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lethal injection Chavez chose instead of the electric chair has been controversial for potentially causing suffering during executions. This could counts as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the U.S. Constitution, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Before the official word on Chavez’s death, about 40 members of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic church bused from Daytona Beach sang and prayed in protest of the death penalty.
“The death penalty is not a deterrent,” said Don Hartnett, who’s been to three previous protests with the church. “We respect the life of the born and the unborn.”
“All life is sacred,” echoed five-year church member Mary Juarez.
Juarez said she didn’t have an opinion on the death penalty until she came with the church to an execution last year.
The experience touched her, she said. She felt as if the sky opened up and she could feel the spirit of the inmate leave the state prison after so much suffering.
People deciding Chavez should die would not bring relief to the Ryce family, she said.
“It’s just such a barbaric thing,” she said of the death penalty. “I hope he (Don Ryce) can find it in his heart to forgive Mr. Chavez.”
Alejandro Hernandez accidentally wandered into the church group. Hearing church members ask forgiveness for Chavez and his family, Hernandez realized this was not why he’d driven 370 miles from Miami.
The 48-year-old server joined a group a dozen feet away of about 20 Ryce family supporters. Though he didn’t know the Ryce family, he talked with group members about Jimmy and donned a button showing the boy’s picture.
“We’re here to show he hasn’t been forgotten,” Hernandez said.
He was about 30 when he first heard Jimmy had gone missing. As the details of the case unfolded, how Jimmy’s backpack was found in Chavez’s trailer, how Jimmy’s remains were found in pieces hidden in planters on the farm where Chavez worked, Hernandez became mortified.
He can’t read anything about the case without bawling, he said. Jimmy was around the age of Hernandez’s nieces and nephews.
“We were scared. Who could you trust?” he said. “This wasn’t what Miami is about.”
Chavez said nothing before his death by lethal injection, Florida Corrections Department communications director Jessica Cary said. He was calm on his last day alive.
In a handwritten statement, he said his faith brought him peace and his sins can’t be judged by other people. His only visitor on his final day alive was a Catholic spiritual adviser.
“I beg my Lord the Christ in these my last minutes of this world,” Chavez wrote. “That his unfailing love be upon us, upon me, upon those who today take the life out of this body, as well as those who in their blindness or in their pain desire my death.”
After Don Ryce spoke, his son Ted read a statement on behalf of his family. Don’s wife, Claudine, died in 2009 of a heart attack. His daughter Martha committed suicide in Atlanta December 2012, according to the Miami Herald.
Ted Ryce criticized death penalty opponents for lacking the strength he and his father displayed by continuing to seek justice. It’s the strength to admit men can commit such atrocities and should face a fitting punishment.
“I came here today because I believe justice has been served this day,” Ted Ryce said. “We must be strong. We must do what it takes to send a clear message to other child predators that if they go after children, if they kill children, that they will die at the executioner’s hands.”