Notorious serial killers, gory scenes in action movies, death-metal lyrics dripping with violent imagery — Michael Hernandez’s interests while in prison helped sway a judge on Monday to impose the maximum penalty.
Life behind bars. Again.
A dozen years after slitting his classmate’s throat inside a Palmetto Bay middle-school bathroom, Hernandez got another life sentence for a crime that sickened South Florida.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger cited recorded jail calls — evidence in a sentencing hearing earlier this month — as showing that Hernandez remained as obsessed with the macabre as he was when he murdered at age 14.
“I did not anticipate rainbows and unicorns and puppies but what I received was truly grotesque,” Schlesinger said of the phone calls, adding: “It paints a picture of a person fascinated by killers, by violent movies, violent music lyrics, violent books and violent current events.”
The sentence was a relief to the parents of Jaime Gough, himself 14 when he was murdered by Hernandez at Southwood Middle School in February 2004.
“Michael Hernandez is a danger to our society,” his father, Jorge Gough, told reporters afterward. “The judge made the right decision in sending him to life in jail. That’s where he belongs. His mentality is totally violent.”
Hernandez, now 26, will nonetheless get another chance to convince a judge to release him from prison. Under a newly enacted Florida law, he will get a “judicial review” after 25 years behind bars — in about 13 years.
He has been in custody since the crime. Originally sentenced to life after his trial in 2008, Hernandez was granted a new sentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 banned automatic life terms without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murder.
The decision in Miller v. Alabama said that such automatic sentences amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” for juveniles whose brains had not fully formed, leaving them open to peer pressure and rash decisions. Courts must now hold full sentencing hearings so a judge may consider a defendant’s youth.
But the opinion also left the door open to life prison terms for the “uncommon” cases. Judge Schlesinger said Hernandez’s crime fit that bill.
In a 26-page order, the judge carefully detailed the crime. Hernandez, obsessed with becoming a serial killer, lured his friend Jaime to the bathroom.
“Hernandez planned it carefully and obtained the knife, rubber gloves and tape that he intended to use. Jaime was stabbed more than 40 times and his throat cut,” the judge wrote. “Just 14 years old, Jaime, after begging for his life, bled to death next to a toilet on the cold tile floor.”
And since the killing, Hernandez seemed to delight in gore while behind bars, the judge noted.
Schlesinger presided over the three-day sentencing hearing as prosecutors played a series of chilling recordings of jail calls with a girlfriend in which Hernandez joked about making “skin suits” — a nod to serial killer Ed Gein. He talked enthusiastically about a character in the show Hannibal having to cut off his own face, another character in a “great” movie getting hacked into 25 pieces and mutilations on the show American Horror Story.
The judge also pointed to one song, played for Hernandez over the phone, by a death-metal band called Cannibal Corpse that included a lyric about a “trachea is torn, gasping sounds are heard, life leaving him, but not soon enough.”
“This seems to indicate little insight or empathy toward, for example, Jaime Gough and his family,” the judge wrote. “Basic human decency should make it unbearable for anyone who took an innocent life by this means to enthusiastically listen to [these] lyrics.”
Hernandez’s defense lawyers had tried to cast him as deserving leniency and the calls as nothing more than an awkward attempt to socialize with a troubled woman who wrote to him while he was in prison.
“There is no question Michael has made immense efforts to redeem himself,” assistant public defender Manny Alvarez told the judge earlier this month, adding: “He is not a lost cause.”
Hernandez himself testified for the first time, insisting that he was sorry for the murder of his friend.
“He was always such a good friend,” Hernandez said, appearing to choke up. “I had to learn for years how wrong I was.”
But prosecutors insisted his tears were faked.
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” prosecutor Gail Levine told the judge on the final day of the hearing earlier this month. “He’s 14. He’s 26. He’s the same person. Give him life.”
On Monday, the judge agreed.