Friday, December 23, 2011

Cristian Fernandez could become the youngest person in America sentenced to life without parole

If Cristian is convicted as a result of the trial taking place on February 27 of 2012, he will be the youngest person in America to receive a life without parole sentence. Prior to Cristian, the youngest person convicted and sentenced to life was 14 year old Lionel Tate. In 1999, Tate was about six months into his twelfth year when he was charged with murdering a much younger playmate. The conviction was overturned in early 2004.

Cristian Fernandez was born on January 14 of 1999. He was charged with injuring his younger brother, David, on March 15 of 2011. This occurred during the early morning hours. David was receiving treatment for his injuries at the time. Cristian was indicted for murder and aggravated child abuse on June 2 of 2011. He was four and a half months into his twelfth year.

Cristian is not the youngest to face murder charges in adult court, however. Jordan Brown was 11 years old when he was charged with the murder of his father's fiance and her unborn son. His case was eventually returned to juvenile court in 2011. Jordan is still awaiting trial in juvenile court due to delays out of his control. Specifically, three media outlets appealed the judge's decision not to open the case to the media. The Pennsylvania Superior Court has yet to rule on this matter.

Cristian's potential status as the youngest person to receive life without parole in America raises some important questions about Florida's treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system. Lionel Tate was also charged and convicted in the state of Florida. Tate was offered a plea deal that involved serving three years in a juvenile facility for second degree murder. The plea arrangement also required Tate to receive probation for ten years. His mother rejected the plea deal, hoping that he would be acquitted in court. He was not.

A profound similarity between Lionel Tate's case and that of Cristian Fernandez is the exploitation of the felony murder rule. This rule is extremely controversial because it requires juries to convict without the prosecution proving premeditation for the murder piece of the charge. As of 2008, 46 states still had felony murder provisions contained within their statutes.

When Tate was convicted and given the mandatory sentence in Florida of life without parole, those present in the courtroom were stunned. It appeared that few people realized a life without parole sentence would be the consequence if he was convicted.

It is difficult to fathom why the felony murder rule still exists, or at least why there is no legislation preventing prosecutors from using this rule to overcharge juveniles. A number of states have eliminated the felony murder rule. These states include Kentucky, Hawaii, and Michigan. It is important to note that Florida includes a much longer list of crimes within these statutes, expanding the reach of the legislation and increasing the damage it can potentially cause.

One of the ways to prevent children like Cristian from receiving life without parole sentences is to target the laws enabling prosecutors to achieve these results. Direct filing processes are another contributor to the problem.

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