Sentencing hearings can be long and painful when they include testimony from the family and friends of victim and defendant. The hearings can lengthen in direct proportion to the size of those families, especially the defendant’s, as they seek to convince the judge to show mercy and lessen the sentence.
In Waldemar Rivera’s case this afternoon, there were no friends, no family, no pleas, though some members of his family, in a manner of speaking, were there: his victim, now 15, and her mother. On March 23, a jury found Rivera guilty of raping his then-13-year-old step-daughter two years ago after drugging her with alcohol and pot. She was watching television. The man who goes by the name “Macho,” himself drunk, then forcibly pulled down her shorts and underwear and performed oral sex on her.
The closest thing to a sympathetic voice Rivera heard today was that of Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman, who always addresses every defendant before him with utmost respect regardless of the case, to the point of friendly banter, and who gave Rivera two chances to address the court. Aside from a few words, Rivera declined both times. “I can’t say nothing right now,” Rivera said. “I hope you have mercy on me.”
Foxman asked him a few questions about his background in Puerto Rico, and what brought him to Flagler (the construction boom), and spoke with admiration of Rivera’s former job framing houses. “It’s actually skilled labor, I don’t think people appreciate that,” Foxman said.
But if Rivera thought the judge’s sympathy would have any bearing on his sentence, he was soon disabused of that hope. Foxman sentenced him to 25 years in prison and a lifetime as a designated sexual predator, or almost a year for every second he assaulted his step-daughter. (She had described the assault in depositions as lasting 30 seconds “before, like, I just—I kind of realized what was happening.”) Foxman made no mention of probation.
The judge imposed the sentence after prefacing it with a note of surprise. “I don’t know what happened here,” Foxman said, looking at Rivera, who never showed any emotion throughout: his mouth seemed frozen in a clearly inadvertent Mona Lisa smile. “From this standpoint you’re the most polite, courteous, and professional person who stood before me in a criminal courtroom,” Foxman continued. “I just don’t know what happened in that regard. Nonetheless, I heard the trial evidence, and I heard the jury’s verdict, and one of the bad things that happens to a child who experiences this–” at that point Foxman turned to the victim and her mother, who were sitting toward the rear of the court, and apologized for saying what he was about to say in their presence.
He went on: “They develop tremendous trust issues in life, and really, really bad intimacy issues of a great depth. And some of them never recover to be able to have healthy, productive, adult relationship, is the honest truth. And so make no mistake about it, sir, you created a lifetime victim.” (The girl’s current boyfriend, a 16-year-old boy, was jailed in Putnam County on a negligent manslaughter charge after shooting and killing 16-year-old Raynie Dettmann last summer. He pleaded guilty to the charge and a judge sentenced him to a juvenile maximum-risk program until he is 21. The State had argued for the defendant to be sentenced as an adult, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said. Though during trial the defense tried to undermine the victim’s credibility, numerous parts of her life were not admissible as evidence.)
Before the trial Rivera had turned down a deal with the prosecution: 10 years in prison, 10 years on probation. Half a day into the trial, Foxman told Rivera, in an unusual move for a judge, that his trial was not going well, strongly implying that he should work out a plea agreement instead. He declined. This afternoon, Regina Nunnally, the public defender representing Rivera, asked the judge not to hold against him the fact that Rivera exercised his right to a trial, and to impose at most a 10-year prison term. She cited several mitigating factors, including a psycho-sexual analysis by a doctor who found Rivera to be at the low end of risk factors for repeat assaults.
Christy Opsahl, the assistant state attorney, asked for the maximum penalty for a first degree felony: 30 years in prison. “There’s no amount of punishment in this case that’s going to undo” what the victim experienced that day, Opsahl said, before going through several “aggravating” factors. “There’s not a day less than 30 year in this case that would be an appropriate sentence.”
The best case scenario for Rivera would have been no prison time but probation. That was on the table. Nunnally argued that he could be properly supervised in Puerto Rico, where Rivera intended to return if he was on probation, and where he had a mother and father and prospects of returning to a more productive life. Opsahl had said that probation should not be an option since he could not be properly supervised on the island, though the probation system does extend there.
The only better news Rivera got was almost a year’s worth of credit toward his prison sentence, as he’s spent 311 days in jail. He may be eligible for release after serving 80 percent of his sentence. Rivera, 36, would be 56 by then. But the life expectancy of sexual predators whose victims are children tends not to be high in Florida prisons.