Crime

Young killer of Southwood Middle student back in court

Michael Hernandez, who murdered his classmate in a campus bathroom at Southwood Middle in 2004, during a recent court hearing. His re-sentencing hearing begins Wednesday.
Michael Hernandez, who murdered his classmate in a campus bathroom at Southwood Middle in 2004, during a recent court hearing. His re-sentencing hearing begins Wednesday. Miami Herald

Michael Hernandez will face a judge again Wednesday, more than a decade after he coldly killed a teenage classmate inside a bathroom at Southwood Middle School.

Hernandez was just 14 at the time he lured his friend, Jaime Gough, also 14, into a bathroom stall and stabbed him more than 40 times — a savage murder that got him sentenced to life in prison.

But now that punishment will be reconsidered, the latest and highest profile murder case in Miami-Dade to undergo a new sentencing hearing since the U.S. Supreme Court banned automatic life terms without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of murder.

Prosecutors will try to convince a judge that Hernandez remains a threat and should be kept behind bars for life. Their evidence could include chilling recordings of jail calls from Hernandez describing serial killers, joking about his inability to cry and listening to heavy metal music laden with violent lyrics and imagery.

“Michael Hernandez is a danger to the community,” said Jorge Gough, the slain teen’s father, who pointed to this month’s mass shooting at a Oregon community college by a disturbed student as a potential consequence of reducing the sentence. “We see what’s happening in Oregon. We don’t need somebody like Michael Hernandez on the streets. He gets out and he could do the same thing or worse.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger, who is now a civil court judge, will return to the criminal courthouse to preside over what could be a three-day hearing. Schlesinger could still sentence Hernandez to life in prison. Under a recently enacted Florida law, Hernandez — after 25 years behind bars — will nonetheless be eligible for a judge to consider a possible release.

Jorge Gough, who along with his wife wrote a book about forgiveness in the wake of their son’s murder, will attend the hearing. “Forgiveness is my choice. It has nothing to with justice,” he said. “If you commit a crime, there are consequences. This kid was sentenced to life and we want the same sentence.”

Hernandez’s defense attorneys declined to comment. The defendant’s father told the Miami Herald in March that the legal rulings that allowed for his resentencing “give us hope.”

“We’re trying to get our son the help he needs,” he said at the time.

Hernandez, now 25, has spent more than a decade behind bars. A jury in 2008 found him guilty of first-degree murder, rejecting Hernandez’s claim that he was legally insane at the time of the killing.

At trial, jurors heard that Hernandez became fixated on becoming a serial killer, even penning a list in his journal of other people he wanted to murder. The day of the crime in 2004, Hernandez tried unsuccessfully to coax another student into the bathroom at the school in suburban Palmetto Bay.

He succeeded with Jaime Gough, stabbing the bespectacled boy in the bathroom stall then waiting to check to see if his friend was dead.

To police, Hernandez first denied any involvement. But then, in clinical detail, he described how he slit his friend's throat then stashed the knife in a hidden pocket in his backpack before heading to his first-period class.

His defense lawyer argued Hernandez was mentally ill, as evidenced by bizarre writings in his journal. “You heard he was talking to a penny and taking advice from his dog. That's crazy,” attorney Richard Rosenbaum told jurors. It was an argument they ultimately rejected.

At the time, Judge Schlesinger had no discretion in sentencing Hernandez — first-degree murder carried an automatic life prison term, regardless of the defendant’s age.

Then in 2012, in a case called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed mandatory life prison terms, saying it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for minors. The case followed another landmark ruling in Graham v. Florida that outright banned life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases.

In both rulings, justices noted that science shows juveniles do not have fully formed brains and are susceptible to peer pressure.

For years, Florida courts struggled with finding appropriate punishment for underage killers and determining whether the federal decision applied to older cases. Last year, the Florida 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. Then in March, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously broadened the law, saying it should apply to even older cases.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement: “We respect the United States Supreme Court ruling and we are making every effort to prepare for the sentencing hearing.”

Hernandez’s time behind bars will likely be a major focus of the resentencing hearing.

His jail calls, listed as evidence and obtained through a public-records request, may offer an important window into his current attitudes.

Most of the calls are with his parents and a woman he met through the website LoveAPrisoner.com. In one jail call, Hernandez blasted the “needless formality” of yet another psychological exam. “Why don’t you practice ... learning how to cry?” the woman asked.

“I may have to stab myself,” Hernandez joked. “I can tell them about the time I almost cried when Brian got killed on Family Guy.”

In another call, Hernandez explained to the woman that he learned that serial killer Ed Gein — who fashioned clothes from the skin of dead people — was the inspiration for the villain in the movie Silence of the Lambs. The two traded laughs about one day selling “skin suits.”

In many of the calls, Hernandez’s father logged on to YouTube and played songs from heavy metal bands, including one Scottish group called Bleed From Within.

“That’s the going to be the theme,” Hernandez laughed. “See how many bands with blood I know.”

The song’s lyrics: “I am filled with reason to seek revenge ... My thoughts are sickening mindless rage flooding out of me.”

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