If all goes as planned, Juan Carlos Chavez will be dead just a little after 6PM East Coast time this evening. Probably by the time you read this.
If you don’t know who Chavez is, you absolutely didn’t live or cover news in South Florida in 1995. On September 11th of that year, Chavez, a recently arrived Cuban immigrant, kidnapped a nine-year-old boy named Jimmy Ryce as he was walking to his Redland home after being dropped off by a school bus just a block away. He took the child to a trailer he lived in, on a nearby property on which he worked. There, according to his chilling confession, he raped Jimmy Ryce for hours, until being spooked by the sound of helicopters and shooting the boy in the back, killing him. He decapitated and dismembered the body. It wasn’t found until three months later; he’d hidden it in concrete-filled pots near the trailer where Jimmy Ryce died in terror and agony.
I remember covering the search for Jimmy Ryce. I remember the faces of his family and their desperate pleas for answers and for help from the community. I remember the 1998 conviction of Juan Carlos Chavez on kidnapping, sexual battery and first degree murder charges and the death sentence he was given. The taking of Jimmy Ryce happened almost 20 years ago — the conviction more than 15 years ago — and I remember it all like it happened just last week. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone who covered that story from the ground, including the national reporters and correspondents who followed the case as it made headlines across the country, was in some way shattered by it. You don’t stand that close to unfathomable horror and not be changed by it.
In 2006 I covered another story, one that refined if not outright changed my view of capital punishment. I traveled to Texas’s death row at the Polunsky Unit outside of Houston to interview a man who was going to be executed the very next morning. The indescribable surreality of the entire experience is a suffocating assault on your psyche, regardless of your views on the death penalty. Polunsky is a place where death is almost literally doled out on an assembly line, with executions there sometimes coming at a rate of one a week. It’s a place where the questionable equity of a justice system which seems to arbitrarily condemn one murderer to die while allowing others to live is a scholarly discussion made devastatingly real. It’s a place where you come to quickly realize that lethal injection isn’t so much a humane method of execution for the benefit of the condemned as it is a means to make us feel better about the process — to help us sleep at night — as well as a means to make us feel superior to the condemned, who may have killed without such supposed humanity. Most of all, it is, in fact, a place that will make you rethink everything you believe about the death penalty, irrespective of what those beliefs are.
I left Polunsky thinking that the system is hopelessly flawed, that in many capital cases the question of life or death truly does come down to how much money you have, what kind of lawyer you can afford, and from what racial, ethnic, and social stratum you happen to have come. Everyone we interviewed claimed innocence. One man would even go on to slice his wrists and throat open in his cell the morning he was to be executed, scrawling his final, gory epitaph on the wall in his own blood: “I DIDN’T SHOOT HIM.” You go to a place like Polunsky and, again, it changes you.
But what do you do about people who admit to committing abominable crimes? People about whom there’s no question of their depravity and the ease with which they’re willing to take a helpless life? People like Juan Carlos Chavez, who told a detailed story about raping, shooting, and dismembering a little boy? Do they deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison? Does he? There are some who say that to do so would be a fate worse than death, but I simply can’t believe that. A human being can get used to almost any kind of environment; after a while it just becomes all that you expect from life. But it’s still life. No, after almost 20 years in prison I think Juan Carlos Chavez deserves to feel the terror of knowing what Jimmy Ryce may have realized in his final moments, what no nine-year-old child should ever have to experience: that his life is coming to an end. Maybe Juan Carlos Chavez would have continued to suffer behind bars. But no matter how much peace he may have made with the inevitable and how deeply he may have accepted his reality, he’s likely scared out of his mind right now. And that will only increase as the time of his death grows nearer, as the final moments tick away to his execution.
He deserves to be frightened. He deserves to suffer. He deserves to die.
Goodbye, you son of a bitch.
Update: After a series of delays, Juan Carlos Chavez was executed at 8:17PM ET.