Fla. May Put 13-Year-Old Away for Life; Supreme Court Says Not So Fast

Cristian Fernandez faces life in prison for allegedly killing his 2-year-old half-brother. But a new Supreme Court ruling has thrown Florida’s sentencing laws into chaos. Eliza Shapiro reports.

Bob Self / The Florida Times-Union / AP Photo

For the last year and a half, Cristian Fernandez has spent his days in a detention center in Jacksonville, Fla., awaiting trial on charges that he murdered his 2-year-old half-brother, David.

If he is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars. If he is acquitted, he could return to the eighth grade.

Cristian, who was 12 at the time of David’s death, is being prosecuted as an adult under Florida law on one count of first-degree murder. (He also faces an unrelated charge of sexual battery against his 5-year-old relative.)

His case is an early test of how states are adjusting to last summer’s Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which prohibited mandatory sentences of life without parole, or LWOP, for minors convicted of homicide. The narrow ruling did not outlaw LWOP sentences completely, but noted that there are qualitative differences in the brain functions of teenagers and adults, and stated that the imposition of “the most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” Therefore, the court held, the Constitution requires a judge “to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

The ruling affects laws in more than two dozen states that currently require mandatory LWOP sentences for minors convicted of murder—as Cristian soon could be.

Cristian’s own family background has no shortage of children who find themselves in adult situations. Cristian’s mother gave birth to him when she herself was 12; when he was two, passers-by found him naked, dirty, and alone in a parking lot. When Cristian was 11, his stepfather shot himself in the head after he learned the police planned to arrest him on charges of beating Cristian. Cristian’s defense team says he has been exposed to sexual and physical abuse throughout his short life.

That life took its latest tragic turn on March 14, 2011, when Cristian and David’s mother, Biannela Susana, came home to find David badly beaten and unconscious. She put ice on his bruises and then searched the Internet for articles about concussions and comas, according to court records. After several hours, she drove David to the hospital.

When doctors discovered David was suffering internal bleeding in his brain, they flew him to a nearby trauma center, where he died after two days on life support.

In the early-morning hours of March 15, Cristian was arrested. Five-feet-one and 140 pounds, he was brought to the Jacksonville sheriff’s office for questioning in David’s death. A police video shows him alone in an interview room, saying, “David ... bookshelf ... twice ... Pow!” and making jabbing movements. Prosecutors contend Cristian was explaining that he had slammed David into the bookshelf.

The day after David died, the medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. After three months of negotiations, State Attorney Angela Corey—who became nationally known earlier this year as the lead prosecutor in the murder trial of George Zimmerman—charged Cristian with one count of first-degree murder. Cristian has pleaded not guilty.

(In March 2012, Susana, 25 at the time of David’s death, pled guilty to negligent manslaughter and faces up to 30 years in prison.)

A little more than a year later, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Miller, throwing Florida’s law—and Cristian’s fate—into doubt.

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Florida’s sentencing law currently provides two options for those convicted of first-degree murder: the death penalty or mandatory life without parole. But neither of these sentences is available for minors any longer: in 2005 the Supreme Court prohibited the execution of minors across the board, and in Miller and a related case the court outlawed mandatory LWOP (PDF).

But Florida’s laws remain on the books, creating what some say is a legal Catch-22.

“The judges are in a box because if they sentence the way our statutes require them to, the Supreme Court has said that’s unconstitutional. If they sentence the way the Supreme Court wants them to, it violates the statutes,” Florida Rep. Mike Weinstein told the Jacksonville Daily Record.

Cristian’s attorneys, top criminal-defense lawyers from across the state who have taken up his case pro bono, have asked the court to throw out the charges against him because, they say, there is no constitutional sentence for Cristian available under Florida law.

“The first-degree murder statute has to be fixed,” Bryan Gowdy, one of Cristian’s attorneys, said in an interview. “The courts can’t do it. The legislature needs to do something about this, and until they do the state can’t just charge someone under 18 with first-degree murder.”

In response, the prosecution has cited the principle of “statutory revival,” which holds that if a court finds a law invalid, it may apply the law’s prior language. In this case, Florida’s 1993 first-degree murder sentence called for life in prison with the possibility for parole after 25 years—this is the sentence the prosecution, now led by Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel, is seeking for Cristian.

“We believe there was a need for some sort of hybrid between what the juvenile and adult courts could provide,” Caliel told The Daily Beast.

The Florida legislature, which does not convene again until March 2013, has no current plans to change the sentencing laws, according to spokespersons for the state Senate and House of Representatives. But Rep. Charles McBurney said that “it is quite likely the law will be reviewed” when the legislature next meets. However, McBurney said, “we’ll want to see the result of the case” before the law is changed.

In July, Rep. Weinstein told the Daily Record he plans to push for legislation to allow judges discretion in sentencing juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. Weinstein previously attempted to change another law regarding nonhomicide offenses, which had run into a similar conflict with a Supreme Court ruling, but that bill died in the state Senate. Weinstein said he would reintroduce that bill as well as a new one based on the Miller ruling. “It’s going to be a little harder,” he said, “but we don’t have a choice.”

Juvenile justice advocates say Cristian’s case highlights the importance of broad juvenile-sentencing reform. The issue is “particularly serious” in Florida, said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and the lawyer who argued and won Miller.

“We’ve made some general progress in challenging this idea that we can treat children as miniature adults,” Stevenson said. “Even for really tragic, violent crimes the idea of the culpability of the child being the same as the culpability of the adult is unacceptable legally, morally, biologically and medically.”

Although Cristian is not alone in being caught between the state and federal governments, those sympathetic with his predicament have created a “Support Cristian Fernandez” Facebook page for him, and a Change.org petition calling for Fernandez to be tried as a juvenile had garnered more than 192,000 signatures as of Oct. 3.

The next hearing in the case is set for Oct. 8, when Fourth Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper will consider both sides’ arguments regarding the defense’s request to throw the case out. No trial date has been scheduled.

Meanwhile, Cristian sits in the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Jacksonville, a 13-year-old boy facing a very grown-up sentence.

“This is about a kid who the system has failed,” said Cathy Craig-Myers, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association. “Everything that could have been working against this kid was in place, and now we’re seeing him end up in the worst possible place. We feel like someone has to blink here.”