Cristian Fernandez gets out of prison Monday, day after 19th birthday

Teen's case changed how juveniles are prosecuted in Duval County

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Frank Powers - Assignment manager

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Cristian Fernandez, who pleaded guilty to killing his half-brother in 2011, will turn 19 years old Sunday -- the day before the date a judge set for him to be released from custody.

Fernandez's case changed the way juveniles are prosecuted in Duval County and garnered national attention.

It also became a hot-button issue in the most recent state attorney election in Jacksonville, which incumbent Angela Corey, who chose to charge Fernandez as an adult, lost to Melissa Nelson, one of the attorneys who defended the boy.

Corey stood by her decision to try Fernandez as an adult in comments she made in February 2013.

“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.

Nelson and high-profile attorney Hank Coxe were among those who joined Fernandez's defense team as the case drew attention from across the country. They worked to get the teenager a plea deal, which came through in 2013, when Fernandez pleaded guilty to manslaughter and aggravated battery in the 2011 death of his 2-year-old brother, David Galarraga.

Fernandez has been in a state-contracted Department of Juvenile Justice facility since then.

"We started out to salvage a normal adult life for Cristian Fernandez, and we accomplished what we set out to do," Coxe said in a February 2013 interview.

Fernandez was just 12 years old when he was arrested in March 2011 and charged as an adult with murder in David's death at the Carrington Place Apartments on Alden Road.

Prosecutors said Fernandez beat his brother so badly that the toddler lost consciousness, and they estimated that the boy's head and face were struck against a bookshelf more than a dozen times.

The toddler died at a hospital two days later from blunt force trauma to the head, prosecutors said. 

Fernandez was sentenced to four years in DJJ custody and was ordered to receive sexual abuse and trauma counseling. He must serve eight years of probation after he is released.

Attorneys are expected to ask for changes in the probation terms, so Nelson, now Jacksonville's top prosecutor, is stepping aside from the case because of her previous role defending Fernandez. A state attorney from Gainesville will handle the case if it ends up back in court.

Corey did not respond to a request for comment.

As it stands now, if Fernandez 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, according to court records.

News4Jax contacted the DJJ on Monday for details of Fernandez's release, but by law, officials cannot even acknowledge if Fernandez currently remains in their custody.

News4Jax found through records that Fernandez was transferred in August from the Cypress Creek Maximum Risk Correctional Facility in Lecanto to the St. Johns Youth Academy in St. Augustine.

Fernandez’s lawyer declined to comment Monday, except to say that Fernandez will not be doing any interviews. 

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