Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: The madness behind middle-school killer’s case

Michael Hernandez, who murdered his classmate in a campus bathroom at Southwood Middle in 2004, during a recent court hearing. His resentencing has been delayed until early 2016.
Michael Hernandez, who murdered his classmate in a campus bathroom at Southwood Middle in 2004, during a recent court hearing. His resentencing has been delayed until early 2016. Miami Herald

No doubt Michael Hernandez murdered Jaime Gough. Michael planned the murder. On Feb. 3, 2004, he lured Jaime into the boys’ restroom at Southwood Middle School and stabbed him repeatedly.

It was a killing for killing’s sake — brutal, bloody, dispassionately executed. The only motive was his monstrous desire to commit a murder. South Florida became so engrossed in the discomfiting details that the trial had to be moved to Orlando to find a jury untainted by the media coverage.

Yet, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, decisions made in the prosecution of this case were also unsettling. Michael Hernandez, just 14 when he was arrested and charged with murder, was quickly consigned to circuit court, to be charged and tried as an adult.

In the months leading up to the crime, the eighth grader had become strange. He obsessively counted his CDs every afternoon, opened and closed the garage door a certain number of times, stared for hours at his parents’ grandfather clock. He set goals — daily Bible readings or making perfect grades — and when he failed, would punish himself with cuts on his wrist.

He wrote in his journal, among other bizarre entries, that he was destined to become a serial killer — his own sister was on his hit list. Psychiatrists agreed that he was delusional, with elements of schizophrenia.

But we have a legal system that can confer adult status on a mentally disturbed 14-year-old — especially in a case afflicted with so much notoriety. Such decisions come with the irrational presumption that such a youngster, as the law prescribes, can assist his lawyer in his own defense.

In 2008, a week before his murder trial was set to begin, the pretense that this unhinged teenager could render rational, adult decisions disintegrated. Oblivious to the overwhelming evidence, Michael rejected a 40-year plea deal. Richard Rosenbaum, his frustrated lawyer, announced in court, “Michael is rejecting his counsel's advice and he is going to trial.”

The Orlando jury convicted Michael, of course. Insanity defenses rarely work. Like any adult convicted of first-degree murder, he received the mandatory life sentence. A forever sentence. No chance of release. But in a peculiar twist, his ill-conceived refusal to take the plea deal may work in his favor.

The madness in forcing judges to confer absolute life sentences on juvenile defendants did not go unremarked by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2012, the court found the concept unconstitutional. Last week, the court heard arguments on whether to make that ruling retroactive. But the Florida Supreme Court already decided as much last March. A re-sentencing hearing for Michael Hernandez has been scheduled for January.

Hernandez could still receive a life sentence, but this time the judge must consider mitigating factors ignored under the old, mandatory sentencing law: his young age at the time of the murder, his disturbed mental state.

The courts finally realized that a child perpetrator — even of a horrible, insane, notorious crime — warrants a different kind of justice.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments