Decision opens door to reduced sentences for Miami-Dade juvenile killers

A group of juvenile inmates sit as they wait to appear in courtroom.
A group of juvenile inmates sit as they wait to appear in courtroom. Miami Herald File Photo

Several high-profile Miami-Dade defendants once sent to prison for life may get a chance at early freedom after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the juvenile killers are entitled to a “judicial review” of their sentences after 25 years.

The decision has immediate consequences for convicts such as Michael Hernandez, who was just 14 when he viciously stabbed a classmate to death at Southwood Middle School in 2004.

Hernandez, originally shipped to prison for life for the brutal killing, is slated to begin a new sentencing hearing in August.

Under the state Supreme Court’s decision this week, a court must now sentence Hernandez to at least 40 years in prison. But after 25 years, a judge could decide to “modify” the term if Hernandez has rehabilitated himself.

“That’s real good news,” his father, Jesus Hernandez, said when told of the ruling. “We’re trying to get our son the help he needs. Certainly, it gives us hope. That’s what we’re looking for.”

The parents of Jaime Gough, the 14-year-old slain inside a Southwood campus bathroom, said they were concerned with the ruling.

“I think this kid is a danger to society,” said father Jorge Gough. “I’m trusting the system. I’m trusting the judge will make the right decisions whenever that times comes. Whatever is decided, nothing is going to bring back our son.”

Across Florida, judges have struggled to figure out appropriate sentences ever since the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012, outlawed mandatory life prison terms without the chance for parole for minors convicted of murder.

The decision, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, left room for life sentences but ordered judges to first hear evidence of a killer’s youth. The case followed another landmark ruling in Graham v. Florida that outright banned life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases, saying they amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The added legal twist: Florida long ago abolished parole. But last year, the Legislature finally enacted a new law that requires a judge to “review” a killer’s sentence after 25 years, possibly reducing the term if the person was deemed to be fit to reenter society.

But the law did not apply to cases from before it went into effect: July 1, 2014. On Thursday, in Horsley v. State, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously broadened the law, saying it should apply to even older cases.

In separate rulings, the state’s high court Thursday also ordered new sentences for three other juvenile defendants. In one case, justices ruled juveniles convicted in non-homicide cases cannot get such long sentences that they basically amount to life behind bars.

In another case Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that all non-homicide defendants should also be afforded the “judicial review” under the new law, opening the door for hundreds of older cases to be reopened across the state.

Stephen Harper, a law professor at Florida International University, called this week’s rulings “substantial” for kids convicted of major crimes.

“They can be influenced by other people. They don’t understand the full range of consequences,” said Harper, a former Miami-Dade assistant public defender who now teaches death penalty litigation. “Even if they have done terrible things, they can still redeem themselves because they can grow up and change.”

He hailed the unanimous decisions, adding: “The fact that they were all 9-0 decisions is powerful because is demonstrates that the [court] recognizes that kids are clearly different.”

Under the new law, if a judge does free a convicted killer, he or she must spend at least five years on probation — unlike the old parole system in which they would be under supervision for life.

The new law also allows for certain juveniles convicted of murders — say, the getaway driver in a fatal robbery who did “not actually kill, intend to kill, or attempt to kill the victim” — to get less than 40 years of prison and a possible review after just 15 years behind bars.

Thursday’s rulings likely affect scores of cases across the state, and some infamous teen killers. They include:

▪ Jason Beckman, who in December was sentenced to life in prison for the 2009 shotgun murder of his father, a South Miami city commissioner. He was 17 at the time. A judge called him a “ticking time bomb.”

▪ Eric Ellington, who at 16 fatally shot a motorist during a carjacking in Miami Gardens in 2011. A cohort killed a woman passenger. In October, a judge sentenced Ellington to life in prison.

▪ Jimmie Bowen, a 16-year-old reputed Miami gang member who coldly executed a baby during an attack on a rival in 2008. Five years later, a judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole.

▪ Benito Santiago, who gunned down a Liberty City couple in 2006. He was 17 then. A judge gave him 60 years behind bars — 30 years for each victim.

▪ Jesus Roman, who at 16 participated in the 2002 kidnapping, gang rape and murder of South Miami high school student Ana Maria Angel. He was sentenced to life in prison.