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Appeals court tosses life sentence for teen in Southwood Middle School stabbing

An appeals court has tossed out a life sentence for Michael Hernandez who stabbed a classmate to death inside a bathroom at Southwood Middle in Palmetto Bay.

Hernandez was at 14 at the time he lured Jaime Gough, also 14, to a school bathroom in 2004 and stabbed him more than 40 times.

Wednesday’s decision was not unexpected: Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court banned automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

A Miami-Dade trial court will have to resentence Hernandez, who still could be eligible for a life sentence. However, a judge must consider Hernandez’s age at the time of the murder before meting out a new sentence, according to Miami’s Third District Court of Appeal. The court upheld Hernandez’s conviction for first-degree murder.

Miami-Dade prosecutors said Hernandez, now 22, meticulously planned the February 2004 murder where Jaime fought desperately to defend himself.

Jurors convicted Hernandez and he was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison.

His defense attorney claimed the teen was mentally ill and legally insane at the time.

With author Jason Wood, Gough’s parents recently penned a book, From Fighting to Forgiving, Learning to Let Go, chronicling their struggle to forgive Hernandez. On Wednesday, Jorge Gough, Jaime’s father, said the appeals court decision was frustrating, but his family was trying to remain strong.

“We’re going to continue to trust in the God that brought us all this way,” Jorge Gough said. “I just want to hold on to this peace that we got learning to forgive, to let go of that anger and that hate. I don’t want to go back there.”

Juvenile justice has been a hot topic in the legal arena nationally.

In 2010, in a case out of Jacksonville, the U.S Supreme Court said that sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The reasoning: Science has shown that youths’ brains are not fully developed, and they are susceptible to impulses and the influences of others.

In June, the high court in Miller v. Alabama, and a companion case, struck down laws in 28 states that handed out mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murders.

The ruling means a judge must first hear evidence about a juvenile’s “youth and attendant characteristics” before imposing a life sentence for murder.

Florida has at least 180 defendants who could be eligible for new sentences under the Miller case, according to Barry University’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center. At least 50 in Miami-Dade may be eligible, according to the Miami-Dade public defender’s office.

But the Miller decision never explicitly said it would apply to past convictions for juveniles.

The appeals court later ruled that Miller was not “retroactive” – meaning any new sentencing hearings for past cases are on hold until higher courts settle the issue.

Hernandez’s case was not considered “retroactive” because he was still appealing his conviction when Miller was decided.

The Miller decision has sparked controversy as to what is the appropriate sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

According to the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, first-degree murder sentences now must “revert” back to before the sentencing laws were changed in 1994. That means youths convicted of first-degree murder should get an automatic life sentence — but with the chance for parole after 25 years.

But Florida long ago effectively abolished the parole system, although a commission still exists to examine longtime inmates eligible for release because their cases date back to the early 1980s or before.

The Miller decision “opened a breach in Florida’s sentencing statutes,” the appeals court wrote in Wednesday’s Hernandez opinion.

So far in Miami-Dade, only one juvenile convicted after the Miller decision has been sentenced. The case: Benito Santiago, who was 17 when he used an AK-47 to mow down a man and woman in Liberty City in 2006.

As the Miller ruling suggested, the sentencing judge last month listened to testimony about Santiago’s troubled childhood. A psychologist testified that Santiago “bawled like a baby” when remembering his tormented family life, which included abuse by an aunt and uncle.

The psychologist also testified that teenage defendants such as Santiago, with still-developing brains, are impulsive and do not consider the consequences of their behavior.

A Miami-Dade judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison.