JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A judge ruled Tuesday that 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez was incapable of understanding and waiving his Miranda rights after his arrest in the death of his younger brother, therefore his statements to police cannot be used at his separate upcoming trials.
The ruling comes two weeks after a four-day hearing about the suppression of video recordings showing Fernandez being interrogated by police while facing charges of first-degree murder and sexual battery.
Fernandez, now 13, is accusing in the beating death of his 2-year-old half brother, David Galarriago, and of sexually abusing a 5-year-old half brother. The sexual battery trial is set for trial late this month and his murder trial is scheduled for September.
"We appreciate the fact that Judge (Mallory) Cooper recognized what our nation's courts and the experts around this country have said for many years, which is that children are different," said defense attorney Hank Coxe. "There is no way that any reasonable 12-year-old could have possibly understood what the police were doing with him."
The state has 15 days to appeal, but prosecutors are expected to do so by Monday, when the next status hearing in the case is scheduled.
"I've learned never to be surprised," prosecutor Mark Caliel said of Tuesday's ruling. He said the judge obviously put a lot into her decision, saying, "It was a tough call."
The ruling boiled down to this: After Fernandez waived his Miranda rights and interviewed with a detective, he asked her if the information he revealed was just between the two of them. That moment showed he did not understand what he was giving up, and it was referenced directly in the ruling in which the judge threw out his statements, according to court documents.
"Well, was the -- the -- rules on paper actually will -- the rights were between you and me?" Fernandez asked the detective who interrogated him regarding the sex crimes investigation.
When the suspect is a juvenile and waives his Miranda rights, the state bears a "heavy burden" to prove that the rights were knowingly and voluntarily waived. Cooper ruled they were not.
According to the court order, detectives brought Fernandez to police headquarters in March 2011 as a witness, and they believed he was covering for his mother.
They asked what happened to his younger brother. Fernandez first claimed the toddler fell from a bunk bed and hit his head on a ladder and books fell on his head, according to court documents.
But the detective told him the injuries were too severe for that to be true. The detective asked if Fernandez' mother did anything to his brother. Fernandez said no, according to the documents.
Then the detective asked him if he did something to his brother, and Fernandez responded, "Um-hum," according to court documents.
It was at that point when the detective stopped the interview because Fernandez became a potential suspect.
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