Police and family services records have given a startling insight into the heartbreaking childhood of a 13-year-old boy accused of beating his two-year-old brother to death.
Cristian Fernandez reportedly suffered neglect at the hands of a teenage mother and a drug-abusing grandmother, sexual abuse by a cousin and physical assaults by a stepfather who went on to kill himself.
Fernandez, who was just 12 when he fatally smashed his brother’s head against a book shelf, could become America’s youngest ever ‘lifer’ after being charged as an adult over the murder.
But the case has ignited a fierce debate over whether the punishment is too strict for a child – particularly for one who was left to languish in a poisonous upbringing littered with abuse.
Fernandez was born in Miami, Florida in 1999 to Biannela Susana, who was just 12. The boy’s 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 found the toddler filthy, naked and walking in the street at 4am near the motel where his grandmother, who was taking care of him, was found surrounded by cocaine.
In 2007, when Fernandez was eight, the Department of Children and Families investigated a report that he was sexually molested by an older cousin. Officials noted there were other troubling incidents: he killed a kitten; he simulated sex with classmates; he masturbated at school.
The boy learned to squelch his feelings, once telling a counselor: ‘You got to suck up feelings and get over it.’
By October 2010, Fernandez and his mother were living with her new husband when he suffered an eye injury so bad that his school sent him to the hospital where he was examined for retinal damage.
Fernandez told officers that his stepfather had punched him. When officers went to the family’s apartment, they found the stepfather dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The family moved north to Jacksonville and Fernandez enrolled in middle school, getting straight A’s, and they settled in a bland, beige public housing complex.
On June 3, 2011, deputies were called to the apartment: Fernandez’s baby brother, David, was dead inside. He was found to have a fractured skull, bruising to his left eye and a bleeding brain.
Susana, then 25, admitted to investigators that she had left Fernandez, David and her other children home alone. When she returned, she said she found David unconscious.
It later emerged that Susana surfed the internet for four hours while her youngest child lay dying, and she even admitted to looking for information on child concussions before eventually calling police.
When they arrived, Susana revealed that two weeks before David’s death, Cristian had broken the toddler’s leg while wrestling.
The medical examiner said David might have survived if she had taken him to the hospital sooner for the head injury and she was charged with aggravated manslaughter. She pleaded guilty in March and could get 30 years behind bars.
Fernandez was charged with first-degree murder. Another felony charge was filed after his five-year-old half-brother told a psychiatrist that Fernandez had sexually assaulted him.
The boy has talked openly to investigators and therapists about his crimes and his life; the gritty details are captured in various court documents.
‘Cristian denied any plans or intent to kill his brother,’ one doctor wrote. ‘He seemed rather defensive about discussing what triggered his anger.
‘He talked about having a “flashback” of the abuse by his stepfather as the motive for this offense… Cristian was rather detached emotionally while discussing the incident.’
Fernandez has been charged as an adult and is the youngest inmate awaiting trial in Duval County.
Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence, which is why he has been detained and charged with two first-degree felonies.
If convicted of either crime, Fernandez 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.
One complication involves whether Fernandez understood his rights during police interrogations.
Richard Kuritz, a former Jacksonville prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, said everyone agrees that Fernandez 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 anytime soon,’ said Kuritz, who has been following the case closely.
Supporters of local State Attorney Angela Corey say she’s doing the right thing by trying Fernandez as an adult: holding a criminal accountable to the full extent of the law. But others, like Carol Torres, say Fernandez 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 Torres, 51. Her grandson attended school with Fernandez 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 a juvenile facility where he could remain in state custody until he is 21.
Last month, Judge Mallory Cooper ruled his interrogations are not admissible, saying he couldn’t knowledgeably waive his rights to remain silent and consult an attorney. Prosecutors are appealing.