A Florida inmate who mutilated his cellmate, cutting off his ear and wearing it as a necklace, had a long history of mental illness and violence — including making death threats against the president of the United States in 2006, state and federal records show.
Until last year, Michael A. Hernandez Jr., 37, was on Florida’s Death Row for the 2004 murder of a 67-year-old woman, who was beaten to death in a home-invasion robbery in Milton, a town in Santa Rosa County. While awaiting trial for that murder, Hernandez — then 23 — threatened to kill the president, George W. Bush, and his family, according to a federal indictment. Details of the threat were sealed.
A jury voted 11-1 to sentence Hernandez to death for the bludgeoning death of Ruth Everett, and he was sent to Death Row in 2007, serving time in Florida State Prison and Union Correctional Institution. Florida’s Death Row inmates are housed in maximum-security prisons, one inmate per cell.
But in May 2017, Hernandez’s death sentence was vacated, and he was resentenced to life in prison. More than 100 other Death Row inmates also saw their death sentences vacated. The reason was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional because it did not require a unanimous vote of jurors.
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Hernandez was then transferred in July 2017 from Union C.I.’s Death Row to Columbia Correctional Institution’s annex in North Florida, records show. After serving more than a decade in a cell by himself, he was housed in a shared cell at Columbia. On Sept. 13, Hernandez became angry with his cellmate, Larry Mark, 58, also a convicted killer. Prison sources told the Miami Herald that Hernandez strangled Mark, cut off his ear and gouged out his eyeballs. Hernandez put the ear on a string around his neck, showing it off to several other inmates, before departing for breakfast in the chow hall. It wasn’t until then that officers saw the ear and realized what had happened, the sources said.
Hernandez put the eyeballs in a cup, and told inmates he had planned to eat them later in the day.
Normally, inmates who are considered a threat to other inmates are housed separately from the rest of the prison population. Hernandez’s records show he had twice attacked corrections officers at the Santa Rosa County jail, including striking one with a toilet seat. Federal marshals also have a detainer for him for federal charges connected to the threats he made against the president in 2006, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Pensacola.
His court history details his violent childhood with parents who were heavy drug users and members of a motorcycle gang. His mother, Cheryl Walker, was sent to prison in Nevada for killing her abusive husband in 1998, and Hernandez’s father overdosed on drugs in a motel room in front of Hernandez, who was 10 years old at the time, court records show.
Several family members, including his mother, testified that Hernandez was beaten from the time he was in diapers, and began taking drugs with his parents before he was a teenager. He was high on crack when he and a friend beat Everett during a robbery, records show.
A psychologist testified that Hernandez suffered from numerous emotional problems, and that he likely suffered brain injuries from his numerous beatings at the hands of his parents, grandparents and foster parents.
Mark was convicted in 1981 of killing a cab driver in Broward County for $35 and his wedding ring.
The incident at Columbia underscored the lack of staffing in Florida prisons. Prisons are so short-staffed that inmates have conjured up disturbances in one dorm for the purpose of drawing officers away from other, barely supervised dorms to facilitate illegal activities. Short-staffing has also resulted in fewer searches of inmates’ cells, making it easier for them to conceal homemade knives and other weapons. Drug smuggling, especially involving K2, a powerful synthetic marijuana, is pervasive throughout the state’s prisons.
Florida has the third-largest prison system in the country, with 99,000 inmates. For the past two years, it has seen a record number of deaths, including many from gang violence, sickness and drug overdoses.