Beneath Cristian Fernandez's baby-faced looks lies a misguided soul that his lawyers argue should gain him mercy as the 12-year-old's first-degree murder case navigates through Jacksonville's court system.
Booking Mug: Christian Fernandez
Fernandez is charged with the March 14 beating death of his 2-year-old half-brother, David Galarriago, at the family's Southside apartment. The defense contends the charges are built alongside a dossier exposing family turmoil, sexual battery and an abusive stepfather's suicide.
"The whole system has failed him. This child clearly is a victim," said Assistant Public Defender Rob Mason, one of two attorneys assigned to defend Fernandez. "We think he can be rehabilitated and, as his lawyers, we will fight for that."
Documents released in the case Friday suggest Fernandez understood that he did something wrong. Detectives who interviewed him wrote in the arrest report that Fernandez was worried about what would happen not only to Galarriago, who later died at the hospital, but to himself.
Court documents also show that police suspected Fernandez of breaking Galarriago's leg in January before he beat the toddler to death in March.
Mason described how the defense has been mounting for months as Fernandez sat in the juvenile system with the police investigation very much under the public's radar.
Since that time, Fernandez has been examined by two forensic psychologists who found him to be emotionally underdeveloped but essentially reformable despite a tough life.
Mason said Fernandez's father has never been around, partly because he went to prison on sexual assault charges after impregnating Fernandez's mother.
Biannela Susana, 25, had Fernandez when she was 12.
Susana and Fernandez went to foster care together when Fernandez was 2 and she was 14, Mason said, because authorities found the toddler walking around dirty and naked outside a South Florida motel while his grandmother, who would have been about 34 at the time, nursed a drug habit inside.
Physical and sexual abuse also are well-documented in Fernandez's life, Mason said, adding that his stepfather shot and killed himself in front of the family to avoid arrest on child abuse charges. That was last October, an event that prompted Susana to head north with her children, settling in Jacksonville.
But the family could not escape its problems.
Susana has been charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence in Galarriago's death.
Police say she knew Fernandez was beating the toddler but did nothing to intervene and lied to state investigators when they began asking questions about the apparent abuse.
Mason said Fernandez appears to be a pretty smart kid, although he processes his own upbringing with a gruff exterior.
"He doesn't even talk about it," Mason said. "He'll say the stepfather was from Venezuela and that's how my dad grew up. He seems appreciative that his parents gave him food and a roof over his head."
Prosecutors haven't discounted Fernandez's upbringing but argue the crime was too serious to keep in the juvenile system.
After announcing that a grand jury indicted Fernandez Thursday, State Attorney Angela Corey said his case posed questions about public safety that would be best decided in the adult court system.
That means the 5-foot-1-inch, 140-pound Kernan Middle School student is leaving a juvenile holding facility for the Duval County jail, although he'll be held with other juveniles there.
It also means Fernandez is subject to a life sentence if he's convicted of first-degree murder.
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