- Associated Press - Sunday, September 16, 2012

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — A decade before he was charged with murder, a 2-year-old Cristian Fernandez was found naked and dirty, wandering a South Florida street. The grandmother taking care of him had holed up with cocaine in a messy motel room, while his 14-year-old mother was nowhere to be found.

His life had been punctuated with violence since he was conceived, an act that resulted in a sexual assault conviction against his father. Cristian’s life got worse from there: He was sexually assaulted by a cousin and beaten by his stepfather, who committed suicide before police investigating the beating arrived.

The boy learned to squelch his feelings, once telling a counselor: “You got to suck up feelings and get over it.”

Now 13, Cristian is accused of two heinous crimes himself: first-degree murder in the 2011 beating death of his 2-year-old half-brother and the sexual abuse of his 5-year-old half-brother. He’s been charged as an adult and is the youngest inmate awaiting trial in Duval County.

If convicted of either crime, Cristian could face a life sentence — a possibility that has stirred strong emotions among those for and against such strict punishment. The case is one of the most complex and difficult in Florida’s courts, and it could change how first-degree murder charges involving juvenile defendants are handled statewide.

Underscoring the unusual nature of the case, Cristian’s defense attorneys said they aren’t sure how to proceed since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out mandatory life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders in June. Another complication involves whether Cristian understood his rights during police interrogations.

Richard Kuritz, a former Jacksonville prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, said everyone agrees that Cristian should face consequences if convicted — but what should they be?

“What would be a fair disposition? I don’t suspect this case is going to end any time soon,” said Mr. Kuritz, who has been following the case closely.

Supporters of local State Attorney Angela Corey say she’s doing the right thing by trying Cristian as an adult: holding a criminal accountable to the full extent of the law. But others, like Carol Torres, say Cristian should be tried in juvenile court and needs help, not life in prison.

“He should be rehabilitated and have a second chance at life,” said Ms. Torres, 51. Her grandson attended school with Cristian, and she has created a Facebook page to support him.

In other states, children accused of violent crimes are often charged or convicted as juveniles. In 2011, a Colorado boy pleaded guilty to killing his two parents when he was 12; he was given a seven-year sentence in a juvenile facility and three years parole. A Pennsylvania boy accused of killing his father’s pregnant fiancee and her unborn child when he was 11 was sent this year to an undisclosed juvenile facility, where he could remain in state custody until his 21st birthday.

The Justice Department said that 29 children under age 14 committed homicides around the country in 2010, the most recent year for which the statistics were available

Cristian’s judge — and jury, if the case gets that far — will have to decide whether to consider the boy’s past when determining his future.

Cristian was born in Miami in 1999 to Biannela Susana, who was 12. The 25-year-old father received 10 years’ probation for sexually assaulting her.

Two years later, both mother and son went to foster care after authorities in South Florida found the toddler, filthy and naked, walking in the street at 4 a.m. near the motel where his grandmother did drugs.

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