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The gatekeeper: Norman O'Rourke is the last man standing between a Broward County sex offender and a second trip through the court system
The gatekeeper: Norman O'Rourke is the last man standing between a Broward County sex offender and a second trip through the court system

The Unforgiven

On April 11 of last year, at around two in the afternoon, a prison guard arrived unexpectedly at Bryant Troville's cell, at the Cross City Correctional Institution, about 50 miles west of Gainesville. Without a word of explanation, the guard shackled Troville and led him from his cell.

The prisoner, then 30 years old, figured the excursion was connected to his impending release. Less than two months remained before Troville was slated to walk out of prison for the first time in 11 years.

At age 19 Troville was charged with sexually assaulting an entire Tamarac family. He received a 20-year sentence for the grisly crime, coupled with 7 years of probation. Through good behavior and legislative tinkering, he had whittled away at the sentence.

On that April afternoon, Troville's thoughts were firmly fixed on his life as a free man. He'd sent a buddy in Pensacola $100 that he'd earned working in jail as a down payment on rent. Troville planned to move in with his friend, find a job, enroll in a vocational college to refresh the electronics skills he'd picked up in prison, and go from there. Maybe someday he'd learn to fly an airplane or would even start a family.

The guard led Troville to a conference room. There to meet him was his classifications officer, the man who would calculate precisely when he could be released. That made sense. But there was a second man in the room as well, one Troville didn't recognize.

The stranger was Ted Shaw, a Gainesville psychologist and president of the Florida Association For the Treatment of Sex Abusers. Shaw explained to Troville that he was there to perform a psychological evaluation. The goal of the evaluation was to determine if Troville should be classified as a sexually violent predator under a new law known as the Jimmy Ryce Act. If he were so deemed, Shaw continued, Troville would be required to take part in a civil trial. And if a jury agreed with the state's conclusion that Troville was a sexually violent predator, he would be detained for treatment until he could be rehabilitated -- potentially for the rest of his life.

Until that moment Troville had never even heard of the Jimmy Ryce Act. Scared and confused, he asked Shaw for a few days to research the law and determine if it would be in his best interest to cooperate. "I knew it couldn't be good," Troville says. "I was expecting to get out and get on with my life, and now they wanted to throw a monkey wrench in my plans."

A month later, after three hourlong interviews with Shaw and a second mental-health expert, Troville was informed that he was being detained under the Jimmy Ryce Act. Nearly a year later, no date has so far been set for the trial. But one thing is clear: The stakes will be tremendous. "If a jury rules him a sexually violent predator, to put him in treatment, my belief is that he's going to be in there forever," says Evan Baron, Troville's attorney. "Realistically, I don't necessarily see him getting out."

The Jimmy Ryce Act -- officially known as the Jimmy Ryce Involuntary Civil Commitment For Sexually Violent Predators' Treatment and Care Act -- was the direct result of a horrific crime. In 1995, nine-year-old Jimmy Ryce was kidnapped in Miami on his way home from school. He was sodomized, then dismembered. Police eventually discovered his body parts buried inside three concrete-filled planters.

Donald and Claudine Ryce responded to their son's death with both grief and activism. They successfully lobbied President Clinton to allow missing children posters to be placed in federal buildings. The Jimmy Ryce Safety Act was passed in Florida, requiring schools to release information to police about missing children.

But the Ryces, both lawyers, went a step further. Three years ago they penned a piece of legislation that would allow the state to indefinitely detain sex offenders determined to have a "mental abnormality" for "control, care, and treatment." They then traveled to Tallahassee to offer wrenching testimonials on its behalf. The Ryces' campaign coincided with the trial of their son's killer, which generated dozens of articles trumpeting the details of his murder. "The cost to the public if this bill doesn't pass will not be measured in counting money," Donald Ryce warned legislators at the time. "It will be measured in counting bodies." The Jimmy Ryce Act passed both houses unanimously.

Claudine Ryce, who now runs the Jimmy Ryce Center For Victims of Predatory Abduction, says their intention was quite simple. "[Certain criminals] are not able to live in society because it's just too dangerous," she notes. "How do you get a psychopath not to be a psychopath? How do you get a sociopath not to be a sociopath? How do you get a pedophile not to be a pedophile? We don't yet know."

Florida is not the only state that retains the right to detain certain sex offenders indefinitely for treatment. "Sexual psychopath" statutes were common in the middle of the century, but most were later repealed as ineffective. These laws differed from the Jimmy Ryce Act, however, in that they generally offered hospitalization in lieu of incarceration.

The current crop of sexual-predator laws was seeded in 1990 with the passage of a Washington law. Similar statutes have since been passed in 14 other states. In 1998 the United States Supreme Court considered one such Kansas law and found, by a five-to-four margin, that it passed constitutional muster.

The statutes continue to generate controversy, however. In Florida and elsewhere, sexual predator statutes are continually being attacked in the courts. In fact the Supreme Court is slated to review a Washington case that could have ramifications for all civil-commitment laws. The justices will consider whether the goal of the statute is actually therapeutic, as claimed by the state, or simply a means to extend punishment for sex offenders.

Defense attorneys and other opponents of civil-commitment laws argue that they are unconstitutional, essentially trying a person twice for the same crime. Critics also contend that the laws are intended simply to punish sex offenders again for their crimes rather than to rehabilitate them. They point out that inmates are not classified as sexually violent predators when they first enter prison, but only after they have completed their sentences -- and therefore are offered almost no treatment while incarcerated.

Even proponents of the Jimmy Ryce Act, like Ted Shaw, who has evaluated more than 80 inmates since the law went into effect, agree that treatment should be offered as soon as sex offenders are imprisoned. "That's one of the weaknesses of the law," Shaw concedes.

What's more, the science used to identify which sexual offenders will commit future crimes is relatively new, murky, and controversial. Nobody knows for certain how to rehabilitate repeat sexual offenders or if it is even possible. In states that have had civil-commitment laws for several years, only a handful of men have been released. Sexual predators are, in essence, being given life sentences based on crimes that they might commit.

"What is it about sex offenders that allows us to say we're not going to give them the same rights as murderers, drunk drivers, and drug addicts?" asks Eric Janus, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, in St. Paul, who has represented two sex offenders detained under a similar Minnesota law. "What's different about sex offenders? Except this made-up thing that they have a mental disorder?"

Last year the American Psychiatric Association released the findings of a task force convened to study the issue of sexually dangerous offenders. One of the conclusions that the nine-member panel reached was that laws using civil detention as a means to keep sex offenders off the streets "represent a serious assault on the integrity of psychiatry, particularly with regard to defining mental illness and the clinical conditions for compulsory treatment."

Dr. Howard Zonana, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and the chairman of the task force, says that the group came to the conclusion that legislators were essentially using these laws as a means to equate criminal behavior with mental illness. "If that's true for this, you could civilly commit anybody," he says. "It's really a way of preventive detention for people that society doesn't want out on the streets."

People like Bryant Troville. Troville is one of about 170 sex offenders presently detained under the Jimmy Ryce Act. He and 69 others who have refused treatment reside at the South Bay Correctional Facility, in far western Palm Beach County, while the roughly 100 detainees undergoing therapy are held at the Martin Treatment Center, in Indiantown.

Most, like Troville, are awaiting their day in court. Only a dozen trials have been held so far. Of these, two men have been released. The rest are being indefinitely detained. They are eligible for annual evaluations by the court to see if they have been rehabilitated and can be released.

"This is a Pandora's box," Janus warns. "Once you open this, you can't shut it. Who is going to be the politician who is going to vote in favor of stopping doing this? Who is going be the psychologist who says these people can go out again?"

A case in point: In October a Broward County jury concluded that Ruben Delgado, who had served time for kidnapping, raping, and attempting to murder a woman, was not a sexually violent predator. He was allowed to go free, the first such jury decision in the state. Three months after being released, Delgado was arrested again and charged with lewd and lascivious behavior. An 11-year-old girl with whom he was living claimed that he tried to pull her pants down.

For someone who has spent nearly a third of his life in prison, Bryant Troville looks remarkably young. His hair is still red, with just a few flecks of gray on the sides, and he sports a faint goatee. His face is pallid, boyish, dotted with freckles and a few pimples. He wears a pair of blue Converse high-tops that have survived a decade of incarceration. As he talks in South Bay's visitor's park, Troville occasionally loops one leg over the back of his chair, like a fidgety high-school student.

"I just woke up," he explains, stretching. It is 10:30 a.m. on a weekday. Breakfast was served hours ago, but like most detainees Troville immediately went back to bed.

It is impossible to look at him and not ponder the acts to which he pled guilty in 1991. According to police reports and other court documents, sometime between the hours of 3 and 4 a.m. on July 5, 1988, Bryant Troville broke into a modest, one-story house in Tamarac.

He slipped into the bedroom of an 11-year-old boy and woke him up at knifepoint. He warned the boy not to make any noise unless he wanted to die. The two proceeded to the master bedroom, where the boy awoke his parents. Troville bound the father's hands and locked him in the bathroom. He warned that he would kill the boy if his father tried to come out.

Next, Troville awoke the 15- and 17-year-old daughters of the family and ordered them into their parents' bedroom. Troville directed the girls and their mother onto the bed, pulled up their nightshirts, and removed their underwear. He bound all three women.

For the next hour, Troville committed various acts of sexual torture that included raping the youngest daughter, sexually assaulting the other two women, smearing feces and bodily fluids on his victims, and forcing the 11-year-old boy to perform sexual acts on his mother and sisters.

Before departing the household, Troville ordered the boy to sit on the couch and count to 100. He then exited the back door, stopped to wash off his knife with a hose, and pedaled away on his bicycle.

Police targeted Troville as a suspect almost immediately. A Tamarac police officer had stopped him the previous evening in the same area for acting suspiciously. Troville also had a significant criminal history, although he had never been charged with a sex crime. In his brief adult life, Troville had racked up arrests for burglary, trespassing, and a handful of misdemeanors. His juvenile record, although not released, according to court records included arrests for burglary and killing animals.

Almost four weeks after the crimes, Troville was arrested and placed in the county jail. Police recovered a glove and knife that were thought to be used in the crimes from a residence where Troville had been staying. About two months later, he confessed to the crimes.

Sitting now, almost 12 years later, at the South Bay Correctional Facility, Troville insists repeatedly that he had nothing to do with the events of July 5, 1988. "Right now if you showed me a picture of these people, I wouldn't know who they were. I've never seen them, don't know who they are. I wouldn't know them from Adam. From the day I was arrested, I've been trying to show that I'm innocent."

If Troville were your average prisoner, his claims would be just one more jailhouse denial. But in his case they may be tantamount to a life sentence. Because, if he is deemed a sexually violent predator, Troville's release will hinge on his willingness to participate in a rehabilitation scheme. He says he will never do this.

Instead Troville says he may petition the court to withdraw his original guilty plea and insist on a new trial, arguing that if he had known about the Jimmy Ryce Act back in 1991, he never would have accepted his plea agreement. The chance that a judge would grant such a motion?

Highly unlikely.

In Broward County, Norman O'Rourke is the last man who stands between an inmate and a trip through the strange machinations of the Jimmy Ryce Act. O'Rourke is an assistant state attorney with a background in public-corruption trials. When the Jimmy Ryce Act became law, he was tapped to handle all of the cases because of his past experience with civil litigation.

O'Rourke's fifth-floor office at the Broward County Courthouse is littered with files bearing the names of sex offenders. He currently has a dozen cases: hundreds of pages of depositions and psychiatrists' reports filled with the depraved details of rapes and murders and acts of pedophilia. "You don't come in here and go 'Wow, how uplifting,' when you read one of these files," O'Rourke notes dryly.

The process by which a case file ends up in O'Rourke's office is legally unique, though not particularly complicated. Up to a year before an inmate with a history of sex crimes is slated to be released from jail, the Department of Corrections (or in a few cases, the Department of Juvenile Justice; or a hospital, for those adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity) will notify the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF). At this point the DCF will initiate a review of the inmate's criminal and mental history. A panel of at least two in-house psychologists will look over court files, psychological profiles, and prison records. If it is decided after this initial review that the inmate is not a sexually violent predator, then the case is immediately dismissed.

If there is deemed sufficient evidence that an inmate falls within the law's parameters for detention, a psychiatrist is dispatched to conduct a face-to-face evaluation with the inmate. Generally a second in-person assessment will be conducted as well. These reports are then sent back to the DCF and reviewed by the in-house panel. The group then decides whether to dismiss the case or forward it on to the appropriate state attorney's office with a recommendation that the inmate be classified as a sexually violent predator and face a civil trial. This is where O'Rourke comes in: He has the final yea or nay as to who gets snagged under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

The Florida statute is potentially wide-ranging: anyone accused of a sex crime, from flashing a child to committing multiple rapes, could fall within its jurisdiction. Since the law went into effect at the beginning of 1999, almost 5000 sex offenders completing their jail time have been flagged for evaluation. Of these, psychological evaluations have so far been completed on more than 2700. But O'Rourke maintains that the state has exercised extreme caution, filing petitions in only about 6 percent of the cases.

In one Broward County case that the DCF recommended prosecution under the Jimmy Ryce Act, the inmate, Oliver Cargill, had been convicted of exposing himself in front of kids. O'Rourke came to the conclusion that the man needed help for mental problems such as schizophrenia but was not a sexually violent predator. The Jimmy Ryce prosecution was dropped, and the inmate was referred to a mental-health facility.

"We want to be careful not to make the Jimmy Ryce Act a place where we warehouse people because they have mental problems and we don't know what else to do with them," says O'Rourke. "This should strictly be for people that are sexual predators, that we're comfortable in saying their mental problems are gonna cause them to go out and commit a violent sexual act."

The problem is, there is no cut-and-dried way to determine which inmates are "sexually violent predators" as compared to sex offenders. But O'Rourke and the mental-health specialists who make such determinations insist there are certain telltale signs that a prisoner will reoffend.

The most obvious characteristic is that the person has already committed multiple sexual crimes. There are other, less straightforward characteristics as well. In the case of pedophiles, for example, psychologists say that those who attack boys and those who commit crimes outside of their own households are more likely to be repeat offenders.

The most difficult sex offenders to predict, psychologists say, are "sexual sadists," those who have perpetrated particularly heinous and cruel crimes -- such as those committed by Troville. This is because there has not been as much research in that area.

Defense attorneys generally praise O'Rourke for being restrained in his decisions on when to invoke the Jimmy Ryce Act. But they fear that other prosecutors will not be so judicious. "Norman's an honorable guy," says Charles Kaplan, a defense attorney who briefly was assigned to Troville's case, "but there are not Norman O'Rourkes across the state of Florida."

Adds Warner Olds, who, through a contract with the Broward County Public Defender's Office, is representing most of the people held under the Jimmy Ryce Act: "You get the wrong person in there, and he could do a lot of damage."

O'Rourke concedes there is a potential for abuse from an overzealous prosecutor but believes judicial oversight provides a sufficient balance. "What if a police officer makes an arrest on very flimsy evidence? Eventually it's gonna get to a court, and they're gonna throw it out."

Virtually everyone agrees that the Jimmy Ryce Act has been a nightmare, administratively. The cases occupy a strange netherworld somewhere between criminal and civil litigation, presenting the classic criminal confrontation between offender and state but with civil rules of procedure. This means that defendants (or respondents, as they are referred to in court filings) are not entitled to such protections as the Fifth Amendment right against selfincrimination.

"This is all new to everyone," says Evan Baron, Troville's attorney. "It's new to the prosecutors, it's new to the defense attorneys, it's new to the judges."

Ken Johnson, of the Palm Beach County Public Defender's Office, is more candid. "Public defenders, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges hate this law," he says. "You might not get a lot of them to admit it publicly, but they hate this law."

Because the law involves several huge bureaucracies, communication has been a problem. O'Rourke notes that the last four cases referred to his office have all arrived at the last minute. He's had less than two days to review the materials for each and decide whether a petition for detention should be filed. "Obviously the more time we have the better," O'Rourke says.

This administrative confusion can play out in messy ways. In one Palm Beach County case, the family of an inmate traveled from Kansas to pick him up from prison in time for his mother's wedding. But when the family arrived in Florida, they found out that he was being indefinitely detained under the Jimmy Ryce Act.

In Troville's case he almost walked because of confusion over who would defend him in court. In July the Broward County Public Defender's Office withdrew from the case, claiming that the legislature had not appropriated sufficient funds for them to take on cases under the Jimmy Ryce Act. A private attorney, Charles Kaplan, was appointed to the case, but he too withdrew because of questions over how he would be paid.

In the meantime, on his own, Troville had filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach complaining that he was unconstitutionally being denied counsel. The court agreed and issued an order that Troville be provided with an attorney within five days or be released. Evan Baron finally agreed to take the job.

"I really didn't fully understand the ramifications of what this law was and what it was gonna entail," Baron says now. "But I've been practicing law 20-some years, and I thought this was something that was novel and interesting."

On June 30, Stanley Ridgeway will become the first detainee held under the Jimmy Ryce Act to reach his one-year evaluation. He will be granted a court hearing to determine if he has been cured of his mental abnormality and can be released.

Liberty Behavioral Healthcare Corporation runs the treatment program for Ridgeway and his fellow detainees at Martin Treatment Facility. Robert Briody, the head of Martin Treatment Facility, did not return three phone calls seeking comment for this story. But according to the contract between the DCF and the company, treatment is based on guidelines set up by the Association For the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Elements of the program include anger management, sex education, substance-abuse treatment, and victim empathy development. Doctors can also prescribe medications to patients for mental disorders. A plethysmograph is used for monitoring of sexual arousal in patients. Patients are supposed to advance through six levels before they can be released.

All this may sound quite sophisticated. But the plain truth is that no one is really certain what constitutes rehabilitation when it comes to sexually violent predators.

The result? In states where civil-commitment laws for sex offenders have been on the books for several years, almost none of the offenders has been released. Minnesota, which has been enforcing its civil-commitment law since 1990, recently released its first rehabilitated sex offender. In Washington state, not one prisoner has been released, despite ten years of attempting to rehabilitate sexual predators. Five detainees have advanced sufficiently to be placed in a halfway-house situation in which they have limited freedom.

"We're gonna see a lot of people just gathering on these wards, and these programs will become more and more expensive and in reality will become life sentences," says Bruce Winick, a law professor at the University of Miami and an editor of the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

Critics question the notion that one can reliably predict future violent behavior at all. "Whenever we're engaging in the prognostication of the future, we're going to make a lot of mistakes," says Eric Janus, the William Mitchell College of Law professor. "I believe we are locking up under these laws, inevitably, more people that would not be recidivists than people who would be."

Perhaps the most controversial method in use is the actuarial test, a series of questions designed to ascertain a numerical likelihood that a person will reoffend. For example, if a sexual offender has committed crimes against someone outside his own family, actuarial tests will generally say that he is more likely to reoffend.

The problem with the tests, critics say, is that they are relatively new, with no long-term study done on their accuracy. "The actuarial tools are largely untested," says Dr. Howard Zonana, the Yale Medical School professor. "Everybody's trying to find something that looks more scientific, so each week they walk in with a new test."

Ken Johnson, of the Palm Beach County Public Defender's Office, says that he had one client, Tywaun Jackson, who was deemed by an actuarial test to have a 73 percent likelihood of reoffending. One of the determinants used in the test was whether the sexual offender was under 25 years of age. At the time that Johnson's client was flagged under the Jimmy Ryce act as a potential sexually violent offender, he was 24 years old. By the time his trial came up, he had turned 25. This change in age, according to the test, dropped the likelihood that he would reoffend from 73 percent down to 49 percent. "Simply because he had a birthday, the likelihood that he was going to commit a new sex crime dropped by 25 percent," Johnson scoffs.

Prosecutors and the Department of Children and Families defend the use of actuarial tests, noting that they are not employed in a vacuum but coupled with in-person psychological evaluations and exhaustive reviews of criminal records. Charles Burton, of the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, says that he was somewhat uneasy initially about the Jimmy Ryce Act but that the recent case of Jackson convinced him of its necessity. During his civil trial, a doctor testified that Tywaun Jackson told him he had molested at least 20 boys and girls in the Belle Glade-Pahokee area.

"This kid needed to be committed," Burton says. "There's absolutely no way he was going to get out with no treatment and not reoffend."

Bryant Troville fully realizes the gravity of his situation -- and he is not particularly upbeat about his prospects before a jury. He notes that his case will be tried in the same county, by the same prosecutor, and before the same judge as Ruben Delgado -- who was released only to be charged with another sex crime three months later.

"In light of that, it looks kind of bleak," Troville says.

His plans for the future have been put on hold -- indefinitely. The friend in Pensacola to whom Troville sent $100 for rent has disappeared, taking the money with him. Because there's no work program at the South Bay facility, Troville has no means of making any money. He's had no contact with his family since pleading guilty. If he is found by a jury in the civil trial to be safe for the streets, he will depart prison penniless, with the Salvation Army or some other flophouse looming.

If, on the other hand, Troville is determined by a jury to be a sexually violent predator, money will not be an issue. Because of his refusal to undergo treatment, he'll be guaranteed a state-funded cell for the rest of his life.

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

Related Links

Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers
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