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Scores of rapists and child molesters could go free in Florida because of challenges to a state law that allows them to be kept behind bars indefinitely, even after they have served their sentences. Around the country, similar state laws are also being tested, and one such case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. A child molester in Florida has already been released because of a recent state appeals court ruling, and perhaps 200 others could get out of prison because of the decision, too. At issue is the Jimmy Ryce Act. Under the law, when the prison sentence of a violent sexual offender is about to end, prosecutors can ask for a civil trial to decide whether the offender is likely to strike again and should be kept locked up until a doctor determines he is no longer a threat. The 1998 law was named after a 9-year-old Florida boy who was abducted, raped and murdered in 1995. His killer has been sentenced to death. The problem is this: Scores of offenders who have completed their sentences but are still awaiting their civil trials are being held behind bars in the meantime based on evidence from prosecutors that they would be a danger to society. Earlier this month, however, a state appeals court in Lakeland, Fla., ruled that such pretrial evidence must be given under oath. On Monday, Thomas Hurte, 21, was freed in Palm Beach County, Fla., on the basis of that ruling. He had completed a 3 1/2-year sentence in January for having sex with two girls, ages 13 and 11, and was being kept in prison, pending his civil trial, based on evidence that was not given under oath. Palm Beach Assistant Public Defender Ken Johnson, who represented Hurte, said keeping offenders in custody for months without sworn evidence violates their rights. Some offenders wait as long as 1 1/2 years for a civil trial, he said. More than 200 offenders in Florida awaiting civil trials are covered by the Nov. 16 ruling, Johnson said. Defense attorneys have filed requests for release of at least 60 of them. Assistant Florida Attorney General Richard Polin, who is in charge of defending the Ryce Act, said the state plans to fight the appeals court ruling. He said that before any of the inmates are set free, prosecutors should be given the opportunity to submit sworn statements from psychologists. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar Kansas law, ruling that states may keep violent sex offenders locked up beyond their prison terms. But the high court is now revisiting the issue. The latest issue before the high court is whether states must prove that offenders are unable to control their behavior. The Kansas Supreme Court said states must show an utter lack of control, but the state attorney general argues that hurdle is too high. More than 1,200 sex offenders are confined in 18 states. The laws have survived numerous challenges and Florida’s act will withstand the latest attack, too, Polin said. Jimmy Ryce’s father, Don Ryce, said he and his wife fought to make sure Jimmy did not die in vain. “We are not going to sit back and let a major part of his legacy get tossed in the trash can,” he said Tuesday. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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