Under Florida law, imprisonment does not depend only on proven guilt of a crime. It can also result from the possibility of a future crime. The imprisonment can be up to life. The offender has few avenues of appeal. The case is not even public. The documents on which it is based are sealed from public view.
It is a little known but disquieting side of Florida law, permissible under the so-called Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows the “involuntary civil commitment” of sexually violent and dangerous predators even after they’ve served their sentence. They’re locked up at the Florida Civil Commitment center in Arcadia, a razor-wired, guarded state prison in all but name. It is designed for “the worst of the worst,” in the words of Brian Smith, an assistant public defender.
It almost all happens in secret but for the trial proceedings, which are not even announced. The courtroom is open. Anyone can attend. But neither the case number nor the name of the person on trial is publicly available. No one would know that such a trail is taking place unless there was an explicit inquiry about why the courtroom was reserved for an unidentified trial. The case number at times appears outside the courtroom door, on a list of cases to be heard that day. But even then, the public is barred from accessing the documents.
The person on trial is disappeared in other key ways, too: there is no trace of him or her either in state prison or local jail records, because the person is under the authority of the Department of Children and Families. Even the guards surveilling the defendant in court are DCF’s, not the Sheriff’s Office’s usual court personnel.
Those were the circumstances of the two-day civil trial of William Walsh, a 57-year-old former homeless man from Bunnell, before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins on Monday and Tuesday. Monday was taken up by jury selection. The trial on Tuesday was over by the middle of the afternoon after Walsh himself and two forensic psychologists testified.
A jury of three men and three women took all of 20 minutes to agree with Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark, declaring Walsh a violent sexual predator and condemning him to DCF’s prison, indefinitely.
Walsh was not being re-imprisoned for a new offense, or even for the severity of any single past offence, because there is no such severity that would even qualify him as a sexual predator under criminal law. He was being kept in DCF’s prison, where he’s been for the past four years, out of fear that he may re-offend, and based on the accumulation of as series of incidents between 2017 and 2018 that don’t amount to much singly, but taken together, and presented to the jury as a dangerous pattern, paint the portrait of a potentially dangerous man.
“Mr. Walsh completed his agreed sentence and now the state wants to lock him up for longer than they agreed to,” Smith, his attorney, told the jury. “He was punished and did his time, and now he’s been sitting in the Florida Commitment Center for almost four years. It’ll be four years in December. There’s a possibility if the state gets what they want that Mr. Walsh could be committed for the entirety of his life, the remainder of his life.”
Clark had put it in more sinister terms: “We have him going after a child, we have him exposing himself, we have him going after a sleeping adult,” she told the jury. All true, though the record is not proportional to the remedy sought. The state does not consider it punishment: it was a civil trial. But the state’s burden of proof was, as a result, far lower than in a criminal trial. The state did not have to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt. It had to present “clear and convincing” evidence that Walsh is a dangerous predator.
Even then, the record does not bear that out anywhere close to Florida’s definition of the terms. Walsh’s behavior has been creepy, offensive and bizarre. But none of his offenses rated him as a predator, only one rated him as a sexual offender, while some of his behavior is not different than that of the average crude, rude office misogynist or creepy uncle–or that of J. Edgar Hoover, the long-time chief of the FBI, a salient difference being that most of those who act that way don’t have the mental deficiency that Walsh has.
William Walsh, 57, is not a bright man: his IQ is in the below-average 80 range. He drank a lot, didn’t know how to plan, and lived, usually as a homeless man, impulsively, answering to his most immediate urges, according to the available record and to the lawyers’ descriptions in court.
In January 2017, he was on his blue bike along State Road 100, near the Madison Green apartment complex, when he saw a 14-year-old girl walking on the sidewalk. As he passed her, he slapped her on the butt and said: “Hey, let me get some of that.” He biked on. The girl reported the incident to her grandmother.
Two weeks later Walsh approached an 8-year-old girl at a school bus stop, showed her the drawing of a dog he’d made, and asked her if she’d help him find it. By then the sheriff’s office had received a few calls about a man riding on a blue bike and trying to speak with children at the bus stop when parents weren’t present.
The same day a deputy found Walsh riding again near the apartment complex, with girls’ underwear in a bag. When he was searched, he was found also to be wearing girls’ underwear. The girl whose butt he’d slapped identified him as her assailant. He was charged with child abuse, a third-degree felony that usually carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, though for first offenders like Walsh, the sentence is usually probation, and adjudication is withheld.
That’s not what happened. A month after his arrest, the State Attorney’s Office filed an additional charge, as it has the discretion to do: it interpreted the slap on the butt as a sexual assault and charged him with a second degree felony in addition to the child abuse charge. Walsh was re-arrested.
Five months later he pleaded, agreeing to sex offender probation for five years. Conditions included no contact with children, a curfew, completion of sex offender treatment or therapy, no work or loitering where children gather, including schools and parks, among others.
Six days after he was sentenced, he violated his conditions. His probation-office-issued GPS showed he’d entered a park in New Smyrna Beach for 10 minutes. He told his probation officer he’d been riding his bike and wanted to sit on a bench to rest. There was no report of interaction or improper behavior with others. He was rearrested, served almost three months at the Flagler jail, and was released on Nov. 29.
Nine days later, he violated his probation again. His probation office had given him a tent, since he was homeless. He was seeking to put up the tent behind the probation office. He asked a 14-year-old boy to help him. He did so in front of his mother, who was in the salon in the same building as the probation office, and both the boy and his mother went with Walsh to help him, according to the violation report.
There was no inappropriate contact with either. But it ranked as another probation violation: An employee of the salon reported the encounter. The probation-violation affidavit then inexplicably describes the encounter as “unsupervised,” even though the violation report had explicitly stated that the boy “and his mother,” both of whom are named, “went to the site of where the offender was sleeping and helped him construct the tent.”
Walsh was rearrested and returned to the county jail on Dec. 9, 2017. This time his probation was revoked. The following February, Circuit Court Dennis Craig sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Since Walsh had already served almost a year, he was released on Sept. 24, 2018.
Nine days later, he re-offended.
According to a homeless woman’s statement to law enforcement, the woman was napping in a lot on State Road 100 and North Church Street in Bunnell when she woke up to the voice of another man yelling at Walsh to get off her. She noticed Walsh’s hand inside her bra. The witness told law enforcement Walsh also had his hand inside the woman’s shorts, though the woman would neither confirm nor further cooperate with law enforcement: “whatever happened, happened,” she said, and that was the end of her involvement in the case. But Walsh admitted on the stand: “I should not have done that. I messed up.”
But he hasn’t known a day’s freedom since, and may never know one again. When his jail sentence ended, he was committed to the custody of the Department of Children and Families.
This is where the case enters a memory hole, as far as the public is concerned. There are no accessible court records associated with it. It isn’t clear why Walsh was committed to DCF’s custody four years ago, at the end of his sentence. It isn’t clear why he has been in DCF’s custody since, or why the civil commitment action was brought to trial only this week.
A bit clearer, and only from the attendance of a reporter at trial, is the attorneys’ description of Walsh in those four years. There is not a single record of Walsh behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner during those four years. But he has also not taken advantage of therapy or educational opportunities, Clark said, rather refusing, as she described it, to fulfill the original terms of his probation (though he is not under such a probationary order anymore). And when he received his $1,400 stimulus check, he spent it on commissary items–“sodas and snacks, instead of saving it for a hopeful day that he would be able to leave that facility and have something to get himself started,” Clark said with sanctimony calibrated to the jury’s own—as if Walsh had any reason to think he would be released.
“He did none of that. He spent it on honeybuns and soda. That is concerning. He is not thinking for the future,” Clark told the jury, before making a justification for thoughtcrime: “He lacks problem solving skills, clearly. Now, I’ve already told you that the best predictor for future behavior is the past behavior. What have we seen from Mr. Walsh? We know that even on probation, he was unwilling to follow the rules. He violated almost instantaneously. We know that he goes after vulnerable people and our doctors are telling us that that he is impulsive. He’s opportunistic and he’s not going to stop.”
Walsh had not helped himself on the stand when he testified. He claimed he wasn’t making a sexual advance on the girl whose butt he slapped, only asking for food, though he admitted that he “messed up.” He claimed she had stalked him (“why am I accused of something I didn’t do?”). He got upset. He said all those programs they have at the commitment center “does not help a lot of people there.” As for support groups for drinking or substance abuse, “I don’t need it,” he said.
“So you don’t believe you need any treatment?” Clark had asked him.
The jury had three choices. It could unanimously declare him a sexual predator who must be “civilly committed.” If four of the six jurors found him eligible for civil commitment, but without unanimity, it’s the equivalent of a mistrial: there would have to be another trial. If less than a majority found him eligible for civil commitment, he would have to be released.
It was not a case lacking in questions or gray areas, which, in such a trial, the jury was free to explore, including by directly asking questions of the witnesses, or asking questions during deliberations, which the judge would have to read and answer, in consultation with the attorneys. There were no such questions.
The jury went in to deliberate at 3:38 p.m. It was done by 4, or about long enough to pick a foreman, check boxes and sign: about 20 minutes to decide a man’s fate. Calling it deliberations may have been a stretch.
After lowering his head briefly when he heard the verdict, Walsh raised it again and looked as barely comprehending as he had during the trial, when one of the things he’d said summed up his isolation. He has no friends, no family, he’d told Clark. “I have family somewhere in Palm Coast, but I can’t remember if they’re even around,” he said.