Saturday is visitation day for the 96 residents of the maximum-risk Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Correction Center near Tampa.
For three hours a week, some of Florida’s most notorious youth offenders get to laugh, draw pictures and play games with the people who care most for them.
Usually it’s a parent or another loved one who drops by the facility for boys, where the youngest residents are 13.
The visitors often bring pictures, mementos, checkerboards and hugs.
For Cristian Fernandez, who admits killing his 2-year-old brother, those hugs and hope don’t come from a family member. They come from Mary Coxe, a children’s advocate and retired Jacksonville attorney.
She’s also the wife of Hank Coxe, one of several lawyers who volunteered to represent Fernandez, who at age 12 was the youngest person charged with first-degree murder as an adult in Jacksonville.
Fernandez pleaded guilty as a juvenile to manslaughter and aggravated battery in the March 2011 death of his sibling and will be incarcerated until he’s 19. Until then, Mary Coxe plans to visit him every Saturday.
She knows the varying speed limits on 1321/2-mile trip to Cypress Creek like the back of her hand.
“On a good day, when there is not a Gator game in Gainesville or snowbirds on (U.S.) 301, I can make the drive in under three hours,” she said.
Laughing, playing games and loving
Over the past 18 months, since asking to be Fernandez’s court-appointed advocate, Mary Coxe and the now 16-year-old have become close friends.
“We talk about my family, about dreams and prejudice and reincarnation, and about the real world,” Coxe said. “I nag him about his grades. We watch basketball and play board games. I knock myself out to make him laugh — really laugh.”
Sadly, Coxe said, she never has to vie for a parking space at Cypress Creek. That’s because on a good day, only four or five boys receive a visitor.
Coxe stays every bit of the three hours she’s permitted to visit, in spite of the tiresome drive ahead of her.
“She never leaves a minute early,” said Melissa Nelson, an attorney for Fernandez who occasionally tags along with Coxe. “She makes them give her the full visitation.”
Coxe says during each visit, she inevitably rubs Fernandez’s head and holds his hand. She kisses him hello and goodbye. She tells him she believes God loves and forgives him, so he can love and forgive himself.
She tells the chubby, artistically inclined teenager she calls a “Pillsbury Doughboy” that when he is released, there are people who will help him with his life.
“And always I hold his hand and tell him I love him — and that I will be back next week,” Coxe said.
A relentless humorist, Coxe said laughter is one of the strongholds of her relationship with her husband. So is family — they have three adult children, all lawyers — and the couple’s passion for social justice.
“We value the same things,” she said.
Fernandez is another common denominator.
Working to give teen a second chance
Before Mary Coxe entered his life, Fernandez gained a chance at redemption and freedom thanks to the powerful team of volunteer attorneys, including her husband, a Bedell Firm principal who refused to allow prosecutors to send a child to prison for life.
“For the very first time in (Fernandez’s) life, someone stepped up to help him,” Mary Coxe said of the efforts of the young defendant’s dream legal team, which also included Nelson and Buddy Schulz.
When he’s released, Fernandez will have spent nearly one-third of his life in jail. The first 30 days after his arrest were in solitary confinement.
Among Hank Coxe’s favorite quotations is one from the final speech former Vice President Hubert Humphrey gave before his death.
“The moral test of government,” Humphrey said, and Coxe likes to repeat, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children.”
That’s the very reason Coxe, Nelson, Schulz, Bryan Gowdy and four other Jacksonville colleagues previously collaborated as volunteers on behalf of Terrance Graham, whose life-without-parole sentence as a teenager was declared unconstitutional in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Ruling that states could not sentence anyone under 18 to life without parole for crimes less than murder, the Supreme Court agreed with Gowdy’s argument that juveniles are different than adults due to their less-advanced mental, emotional and psychological development.
The Jacksonville attorneys continue to take on pro bono cases in matters involving children’s rights, including attempting to convince the Florida Legislature to prevent offenders like Fernandez from being tried as adults.
“Perhaps there will be a time when our governments are capable of recognizing that children are, in fact, children,” Hank Coxe said.
For their efforts, the Coxes were honored Thursday by Florida’s Children First as the youth-serving organization’s Northeast Area Children’s Advocates of the Year.
“Hank is the lawyer I’ve always wanted to be and Mary is the person I’ve always wanted to be,” said Jacksonville lawyer Jake Schickel, a Florida’s Children First advisory board member.
Caring about how Fernandez’s story ends
Cypress Creek, Mary Coxe said, is both the best and worst place Fernandez has lived.
He gets three meals a day, plus snacks. He goes to school every day. There’s on-site medical care.
He has his own room with a bed and access to a library, chess boards and art supplies. Fernandez loves art.
And no one beats him.
But he rarely gets outside. Mary Coxe said he hasn’t seen the stars in four years.
“No one there loves him,” she said. “No one knows his story or cares how it ends.”
The Coxes know Fernandez’s story and care how it ends.
He was born to a 12-year-old mother. His biological father was prosecuted for impregnating her.
“No one was there to help his mother except her own drug-addict mother,” Mary Coxe said.
When Fernandez was 18 months old, he was hospitalized and it was discovered he had never had any immunizations.
“No one stepped in,” she said.
When Fernandez was 2, Mary Coxe said, he was found at 3 a.m. in a motel parking lot, naked and alone.
“No caretaker to be found; no one intervened,” she said.
His mother, Biannela Susana, lost custody of Fernandez and her other children after pleading guilty to aggravated child manslaughter in the death of her 2-year-old son because she did not seek medical help for him in a timely manner.
Mary Coxe said now that she knows Fernandez well, she’s as certain as ever that he won’t re-offend.
“He was a kid that got mad at his brother like brothers do all the time all over the world,” she said. “I’m not sure what happened, but I’m sure it’ll never happen again.”
She’s pretty confident, too, in her comedic ability.
“I am pretty good at making him laugh. I know him that well,” she said of Fernandez. “And of course it makes me feel wonderful.”