JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Fourteen-year-old Cristian Fernandez pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to lesser charges of manslaughter and aggravated battery in the death of his 2-year-old half brother, just less than a month before his murder trial was set to begin.
While charged as an adult with first-degree murder, he was allowed to plead as a juvenile. He will remain in the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center until his 19th birthday -- Jan. 14, 2018.
Once released, he will be placed on eight years of probation. If he does everything he is supposed to, he can walk away from that probation sentence in five years, when he's 24. If he violates that probation, he will face 15 years in Florida state prison as an adult and be placed with other adults.
Fernandez must also undergo comprehensive evaluation, treatment and medication. He won't be able to see his siblings unless his guardians agree, and won't be able to see minors younger than 16 unless his probation officer agrees. Finally, as part of the plea deal, Fernandez will be required to be in school, working toward a high school diploma and/or work full-time.
At a news conference about 90 minutes after the plea agreement reached in court, State Attorney Angela Corey thanked the detectives and prosecutors who had worked on the case for nearly two years. She also defended her decision to charge Fernandez as an adult, saying it gave them a wider degree of sentencing options.
"This defendant needed to be punished for the acts he committed on this child, but he also need to receive rehabilitation that went beyond what the juvenile system could provide," Corey said.
The boy was 12 when he was arrested in March 2011 and charged with murder in the death of David Galarriago (pictured, right) at the Carrington Place Apartments in the 11800 block of Alden Road. He was charged as an adult.
The toddler died at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center two days later from blunt force trauma to the head, prosecutors said.
"For two years the focus of this case has been on the defendant. Today it's about justice for David, who was robbed of his future, robbed of his very life by his big brother -- the brother he trusted, the brother with whom he lived, the brother who ended his life in such a brutal way," Corey said.
Corey said Fernandez beat his brother so badly that the toddler lost consciousness. She said medical experts estimate that the boy's head and face were struck against a bookshelf more than a dozen times.
Fernandez's attorney, Hank Coxe, said the boy was overcharged.
"Don't forget, you're indicting a 12-year-old child for first-degree murder when you the state know he didn't intentionally kill his brother. You know that going into it. So what are you thinking?" Coxe said.
"This child suffered brutal infliction, brutal infliction of pain, of injury and of multiple injuries that resulted in his immediate unconsciousness and his death," Corey said. "This was no accident. This was not negligence. This was a deliberate act, which is what manslaughter is."
Also in November, prosecutors decided to drop a sexual assault charge against Fernandez (pictured left entering a courtroom on Friday) in an alleged incident involving his 5-year-old half brother.
Cooper had previously thrown out all of Fernandez' statements to police in the case. That, combined with conflicting statements by the half brother and the lack of physical evidence led prosecutors to drop the charge.
Cooper threw out Fernandez's statements because she found he hadn't fully understood his rights or what he was doing when he waived them.
The question throughout the pretrial process had been whether to charge Fernandez as an adult or a juvenile. Fernandez was housed with other juveniles at the Duval County jail and given access to a counselor.
"We said from the beginning that we were not seeking to put this defendant away for life. We were not seeking to send him to an adult prison," Corey said. "And by the way, even on an adult sentence, he would have never served time with adults. He would have served time with other juveniles his own age."
Fernandez's mother, Biannela Susana, has already pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter in the death of her youngest son and faces 13-30 years in prison. Her sentencing is set for April 8. Susana was home at the time of the beating, along with Fernandez's two other half siblings, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said the family moved to Jacksonville from Miami less than a year before the death of the toddler.
Fernandez is the youngest person ever indicted on a murder charge in Duval County. Last year, a legal team headed by Coxe took over the defense of Fernandez from the Public Defender's Office.
"We started out to salvage a normal adult life for Cristian Fernandez, and we accomplished what we set out to do," Coxe said.
"We believe this was the best way to resolve this case and reach the middle ground we were striving for since the inception -- a middle ground that would both punish and rehabilitate Cristian Fernandez," Corey said.
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