Baby-faced' boy's case highlights debate about trying juveniles

A couple of days after a 2-year-old died in an Alden Road apartment, State Attorney Angela Corey made a trip to juvenile court.
She wanted to be there when the boy's half brother had his first court appearance.
She wanted to look at him.
"I wanted to see, what does a 12-year-old who did this look like?" she said. "Is he going to look like what you would envision?"
She had to wait an hour. But when Cristian Fernandez walked into the room, he was not what Corey had pictured.
"He looks so baby-faced," she said. "We have some 12-year-olds who are starting to look like grown men. They're big and strong. He has just sort of a round face, wide-eyed look."
In other words, he looked like what he is: a boy.
But two months later, that baby face was all over newspapers and newscasts after Corey made what she describes as a "tough, but necessary" decision.
The boy was being charged as an adult.
Update: Judge rules Fernandez to remain in jail
Fernandez instantly became the youngest person in city history to face first-degree murder charges. And if convicted, he faces life without parole — although Corey emphasizes that wasn't the goal of what happened last week.
Corey explained Friday how she went from seeing the boy in juvenile court to charging him as an adult. She and her staff spent two months investigating him, having experts test him, discussing options and meeting with the defense.
In the end, she says, one of the key factors was this: juvenile jurisdiction ends at age 21.
"My fear is that whatever has happened to this young man in his short time on Earth cannot be solved in eight years," she said.
Some of what happened has become public. When Cristian Fernandez was born, his mother was 12 and his grandmother was on drugs. At age 2, he and his mother both ended up in foster care in South Florida. Through the years, there was physical and sexual abuse. And last year, when police came to arrest his stepfather, he shot and killed himself in front of the family.
That led Biannela Susana to bring her children to Jacksonville. Now she has been charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence in the death of 2-year-old David Galarriago. And her 12-year-old son is a co-defendant, the subject of attention that undoubtedly will go far beyond Duval County.
Charles Stimson, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Adult Time for Adult Crimes," predicted this case will reignite debate about whether life without parole is constitutional for juveniles.
The Supreme Court ruled last year that it was unconstitutional in non-homicide cases.
"Incarceration activists will use this case, no doubt, as a poster child of their broader effort," he said. "It's nothing of the sort. It's an outlier. The vast majority of people serving life without parole as teenagers are 16- and 17-year-olds."
Stimson is careful not to take a specific stance on this case, other than to say, "There are no winners here. ... It's a tragic, tragic situation."
'They're still 12-year-olds'
It is one that has prompted comparisons to the case of Lionel Tate. In 1999, at age 12, he was charged with first-degree murder for the battering death of a 6-year-old girl in South Florida. Tate's family turned down a plea bargain.
And at age 14, he became the youngest American sentenced to life without parole — a sentence that was overturned by a state appeals court.
Tate returned to prison in 2008, following an armed robbery arrest.
The youngest American ever convicted of murder was Nathaniel Abraham. He wasn't much younger than Fernandez — 11 years and 9 months — when he used a borrowed .22-caliber rifle to shoot an 18-year-old stranger at a suburban Detroit convenience store in 1997. A jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. A judge sentenced him to seven years at a maximum-security juvenile detention center.
Abraham also returned to prison after trying to sell Ecstasy out of the trunk of his car.
Nearly everyone agrees that the best-case scenario is to prevent children from committing violent acts. The debate is what to do after those acts happen. And many argue that a 12-year-old should never be tried as an adult, or face a life sentence.
"There is no 12-year-old on Earth that acts like an adult," said Terry Maroney, Vanderbilt University associate professor of law. "They can do things that can be extremely shocking, but they're still 12-year-olds."
That doesn't mean they aren't dangerous, he said.
"Someone capable of doing that at 12 is almost certainly suffering from a deep disturbance, but I don't think there's a single thing a 12-year-old could do to make me think of him as a functioning adult," he said. "Which, in my view, is what the juvenile justice system is for."
And then there's someone like Aaron Knipis. Today, he's a clinical psychologist and author. But at age 12, he was in trouble. Living on the streets, committing crimes, headed for teen years spent in and out of jail. His experiences convinced him that a long prison sentence for a child only makes it likely that they become a worse person, not a better one.
"You can't make that decision with a 12-year-old," he said. "I think it's a corrupt belief to think you can know the heart and soul of a child and predict the course of their lifetime."
Although Fernandez is the youngest person to be charged with murder in Jacksonville, he hardly is the only young face to be in this situation.
Local children also charged as adults
In the 1990s, 13-year-old Thomas Thompson and 14-year-old Josh Phillips each were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Thompson now is 31. Phillips is 27.
Pat McGuinness recalled working as a defense lawyer for Thompson.
"He had no real appreciation of what was going on," he said. "Someone scuffed his shoes over in the jail, and he seemed more upset about that than the fact he was being tried for first-degree murder."
While sentencing Thompson, Circuit Judge John D. Southwood said he was looking past Thompson's cherub looks to see a heartless young man who, according to testimony, told friends he shot off-duty corrections officer Tammy Jo Johnson simply because she had to die.
"I'm not sure he understood the enormity of what he did," said Southwood, who has been retired for 14 years. "He knew what he did, but it's the enormity of it."
Former State Attorney Harry Shorstein chose to charge Phillips as an adult for the murder of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton.
But last week he repeated something he has said since: If he had it to do over again, he would handle that prosecution differently, creating at least the possibility of parole.
He points to the cost of putting someone that young in prison for life. And he points to scientific studies that have shown that the part of the brain responsible for impulsive actions is not developed nearly as early as thought.
"With that science, I know I changed my attitude toward the very harsh punishment of juveniles," he said.
A few years ago the decision to try Phillips as an adult got support from an unlikely place — Phillips.
In an interview with The Times-Union in the Hardee Correctional Institution, Phillips said part of him was thankful he was prosecuted as an adult.
He said he didn't think he'd have been as rehabilitated or mature if he hadn't come to terms with dying in prison. But he also said he still had dreams of getting out.
"Maybe I deserve to die in prison ... but I can't look at it like that," he said. "Doing that is just a cop-out. ... Why would I try to learn anything? Why would I try to improve myself? Why would I try to help anybody if I'm just going to lay down and die in here?"
All of this raises the question of what the future holds for a 12-year-old boy with a very bleak past.
Corey says while her office is building its case, it also is continuing to talk to the defense.
She says she hopes something can be worked out.
"Talking at this point about life without parole is premature at best," she said. "What people need to do is pray for this young man and pray for everybody in the justice system handling this case that something can be salvaged — that this young man can be salvaged.
"What we can't do is blame his mother and his upbringing and excuse what he did."
Staff writers David Hunt and Kate Howard contributed to this report.
mark.woods@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4212

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