For first time, Southwood Middle killer takes stand at sentencing hearing

Convicted killer Michael Hernandez tries to control his emotions on the stand Thursday while being cross-examined.
Convicted killer Michael Hernandez tries to control his emotions on the stand Thursday while being cross-examined.

Michael Hernandez surprisingly took the witness stand Thursday to insist he was sorry for savagely stabbing his teenage pal to death inside a Palmetto Bay middle school bathroom more than a decade ago.

“He was always such a good friend,” Hernandez said, appearing to choke up. “I had to learn for years how wrong I was.”

Hernandez testified Thursday in his second sentencing hearing for the notorious murder of 14-year-old Jaime Gough at Southwood Middle School in February 2004, a crime that sickened South Florida and originally sent him to prison for life. It was the first time Hernandez had ever testified in court. He did not take the stand at his first sentencing in 2008.

Thanks to a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning automatic life sentences for minors convicted of murder, Hernandez now has the chance to convince a judge he deserves leniency. He, too, was 14 at the time of the killing.

But Hernandez had to withstand a withering cross examination by prosecutor Gail Levine, who immediately accused him of faking his emotion. “How’d ya muster up those tears?,” Levine boomed. “As you sit here today, you cry on cue.”

“No ma’am,” Hernandez replied.

“You don’t have any tears on your face,” Levine later said.

The dramatic testimony highlighted the second day of Hernandez’s sentencing. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger could still sentence him to life behind bars, although under a new Florida law, a judge could opt to release him in about 13 years.

Hernandez, now 26, said if he were released from prison, he would like to become a paralegal to help others in his shoes. “I want to get married,” he said. “I want to have kids one day.”

Much of his testimony served to try and offset the effect of the prosecution’s main evidence — a series of bizarre jail phone calls, some of them with his pen-pal girlfriend from Oregon who wrote after learning of him in a textbook about serial killers.

Many of the calls, recorded by the jail system, centered around morbid topics, including serial killers. Hernandez swore he only went along because he finally found a woman interested in him.

“I didn’t know her very well,” Hernandez said. “I was just trying to find something to talk about. I knew she was interested in that.”

Hernandez also defended his love of heavy metal music, some of it with violent lyrics, usually played for him by his father over the phone. He claimed the music was a way to bond with dad — and the love of the lyrics stemmed from his solitary days in custody.

“Metal is a music for the excluded, for the lonely, for the people who may feel lonely or frustrated,” Hernandez told defense lawyer Manny Alvarez.

When his direct testimony was over — and as the courtroom filled with spectators – the prosecutor took her turn. She immediately ripped into Hernandez, describing a series of dark remarks on the jail calls, including one about “bringing back” the Holocaust.

“It was a stupid thing to say … I didn’t believe it,” Hernandez said.

“You know what was stupid? You didn’t think I was smart enough to listen to your calls,” Levine shot back.

“I never had that thought.”

“You thought this prosecutor doesn’t have time to listen to them,” Levine said. “But I have all the time in the world for you.”

Then she challenged Hernandez to apologize to his younger sister, Christina. Back in 2004, Hernandez had compiled a list of people to kill that included her and Jaime.

From the witness stand, he turned to his left. Christina Hernandez, sitting in the crowd, began to bawl.

“I had no intent to do anything to you,” he said. “I was mad one day. That’s all it was. I love you.”

Levine was incredulous.

“Is that how it was with Jaime?” she said. “One bad day?”

Related stories from Miami Herald