By: James Davis
The Florida Murder Case
In March 2011, two-year-old David Galarriago died of a head injury while in the care of his 12-year-old half-brother, Cristian Fernandez. Fernandez later told police officers he pushed his brother into a bookcase out of anger. The boys’ mother eventually returned home, but waited more than six hours before driving Galarriago to the hospital where he died from his injuries.
The state attorneys decision to pursue the case in adult court means the boy could potentially face life in prison if convicted, although prosecutors have previously stated they would not pursue a life sentence. The decision not to utilize the juvenile court system triggered significant opposition, leading to a petition drive and several protests of the state’s decision.
Early last month, Judge Mallory Cooper suppressed key interrogatory evidence, including a confession from Fernandez, concluding the police did not secure a knowing, voluntary and intelligent waiver from the boy of his Miranda rights. Although the officers read Fernandez his Miranda rights, asked if he understood, and then secured a waiver of those rights that appeared “responsive and intelligent,” it was not enough in this case, the judge decided.
Age Factored into Fernandez’s Understanding of Rights
The judge took special note of Fernandez’s young age and expert testimony indicating the boy did not understand what the officers attempted to communicate to him regarding his rights. The “court cannot ignore the fact that the defendant was a 12-year-old child with no knowledge of the legal system. Moreover, this court cannot ignore expert testimony that the defendant was unable to fully comprehend the Miranda warnings or appreciate the consequences of waiving his rights,” the judge wrote in granting the defense’s suppression motion. The judge also pointed to a specific question, where Fernandez asked one detective, at the end of her interview with the boy, whether the document he had just signed waiving his Miranda rights was “just between you and me.” That question alone, the judge determined, made it clear that the boy “did not completely comprehend his rights, thus requiring suppression of the evidence.”
The state quickly elected to appeal the ruling, and also asked for a stay in Fernandez’s murder trial. Another potential hurdle the state will face is the defense’s motion to dismiss the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Miller v. Alabama. The court in Miller determined that sentencing juveniles to mandatory prison terms of life without parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Fernandez stands accused of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of either death or life without parole. The trial court expects to schedule Fernandez’s trial for early next year, pending the outcome of the motions and appeals.
This case is a testament to the fact that all those facing criminal charges, no matter what the crime, should ensure they have the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure their rights are respected both in and outside the courtroom. In many cases prosecutors are willing to go as far as possible—including trying 12-year old children for murder as adults. Without clear push-back from aggressive defense attorneys, those prosecutors often get their way without challenge.