The Rotary Club of Jacksonville heard insight Monday into one of the more high-profile murder cases in Jacksonville from Hank Coxe, one of the attorneys who represented the defendant.
Coxe helped defend Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year old charged as an adult for first-degree murder in March 2011 the death of his 2-year-old half-brother.
On the advice of his attorneys, Fernandez entered a guilty plea to manslaughter and aggravated assault in February.
He was committed to a secure facility within the Department of Juvenile Justice until Jan. 14, 2018, his 19th birthday.
While in custody, he is to undergo comprehensive psychological and psychiatric evaluations and is required to continue his education while incarcerated.
After he is released, Fernandez is to serve eight years of probation.
Coxe said the resolution of the case revolved around whether an adolescent is capable of interacting with the judicial system in the same way as an adult.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that juveniles cannot be considered by law enforcement and the judicial system with the same rules and practices as adults.
Coxe cited a 1948 Supreme Court decision in the case of a 15-year-old defendant in Ohio who was interrogated by police. The court stated that the suspect was "a ready victim of the Inquisition" and "the victim of fear and panic," Coxe said.
He said in 1962 the Supreme Court ruled a 14-year-old suspect "was likely to have no conception of what is available to him" in terms of Constitutional rights.
Another element of the plea agreement in the Fernandez case was findings adopted by the American Medical Association and other organizations that have determined adolescents cannot be treated as adults since their brains are not fully developed.
"They don't appreciate the significance of their decisions and they don't understand the consequences of their actions," said Coxe.
He said the local legal community made the critical contributions to advocating, on a pro bono basis, for Fernandez.
Coxe cited the law firms Holland & Knight and McGuireWoods as well as the Bedell Firm, in which he is a partner, for providing the services of attorneys and legal assistants for the case. Also involved in donating services were investigators, forensic analysts and court reporters.
"Our mission was to ensure this 12-year-old's case would be resolved in juvenile court," said Coxe.
"I can't be prouder of the lawyers I worked with and of this legal community," he said.
He said the Fernandez case also brought to the forefront a larger juvenile justice issue with implications on the local and state levels.
"The state of Florida leads the nation in housing juveniles in adult prisons and Duval County leads the state," said Coxe.
"The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is very concerned about Duval County and how kids are dealt with here," he said.