Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What to Do With a 13-Year-Old Killer?

Cristian Fernandez, 13. Police photo.

Are killers born or are they made from circumstances that force them to crime? It’s a question that has vexed psychiatrists and criminologists for centuries. Now comes the case of Cristian Fernandez, the 13-year-old accused of murder in Jacksonville, Florida, whose depraved upbringing raises the issue again in a shocking case with national implications.

The facts of Fernandez’ case are horrific. Last year, then 12-year-old Cristian was indicted for the first-degree murder of his 2-year-old half-brother David Galarriago, who died as a result of myriad injuries: a skull fracture, bruises on the left eye and nose, and bleeding in his brain. Although Cristian admitted to police that he beat his younger brother, it was the boys’ mother who was first convicted of a crime in relation to the incident.

Biannela Susana, 25, told detectives that she had left her children home alone and found David unconcious upon her return. Instead of calling paramedics, she waited more than eight hours before seeking medical attention. She spent that time texting friends for advice and researching “unconsciousness” on the internet. Prosecutors would ultimately charge her with aggravated manslaughter — she pled guilty to the charge in March and is awaiting sentencing: she could receive up to 30 years in prison.

Bianella Marie Susana, 25. Police photo.

Susana was just 12 years old herself when she gave birth to Cristian in 1999. His father, who was 25 at the time of Cristian’s birth, was sentenced to 10 years probation for the sexual assault that ended up in conception.

Things didn’t get any better for Susana or her son. At the age of 2, Cristian was found wandering the Jacksonville streets at 4 a.m., naked and grimy. His grandmother was found in a nearby hotelroom with cocaine. Both Susana and Cristian were put in foster care.

The warning signs started up soon after. In 2007, 8-year-old Cristian was reportedly molested by a cousin. An investigation into the incident found more troubling incidents: Cristian had killed a kitten and masturbated at school. Three years later, officials called police when Cristian came to school with an injured eye. The boy told police his stepfather punched him — when police went to question the stepfather, they found him dead of self-inflicted gunshot. The emotional and physical damage had already done its damage. As Cristian later told a counselor, “You got to suck up feelings and get over it.”

The cycle of abuse came full circle as prosecutors recently charged Cristian with sexually assaulting his 5-year-old half-brother.

Despite his tender age, Fernandez was charged as an adult — he is the youngest inmate in Duval County. Now, the question of a fitting punishment is dominating the case.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — the prescribed punishment by Florida statute. Even Florida prosecutors realize the case is exceptional:
“It’s a tragic set of events to say the least,” Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel told a Florida newspaper.

If this case does go to trial, defense attorneys will try to get the full picture of Fernandez’s sad life admitted before the jury. And while those facts will tug the heartstrings of any normal juror, they will have to weigh those feelings against the opinion of psychologists who will say the boy poses a great risk of further violence when released. Having been let down by his parents and child welfare authorities, perhaps the most bittersweet part of Cristian’s story is that he received straight A’s in middle school before the abuse allegations against his stepfather emerged.

Should Cristian Fernandez be given the opportunity to start again or be sentenced to live the vast majority of his life behind bars? There are no easy answers.

Supporters of Cristian Fernadez have created a Facebook page to advocate for the boy. The feelings can be summarized by one post: “This child needs rehabilitation, NOT jail time!”

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