Michael Hernandez, who as a mentally troubled youth was convicted of stabbing his best friend to death in a middle school restroom, will get a new sentencing hearing after an appeals court ruled Wednesday that his mandatory life sentence was unconstitutional.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled there was no choice but to toss out Hernandez's sentence because he was a juvenile when the killed Jaime Gough in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that juveniles cannot face mandatory life sentences with no possibility of parole, even for murder.
TIMELINE: Michael Hernandez trial
A judge could still impose a second life sentence on Hernandez, the appeals court said, but the Supreme Court decision "requires the sentencer to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison."
READ: Court of Appeal ruling
"The sentencing court must be free to impose a lesser sentence when the defendant's youth or the circumstances of the crime so indicate," the appeals court ruled.
"It means that anybody who was convicted, any juvenile that was convicted prior to 2012 and was given a life sentence for murder, has at least the opportunity to ask for re-sentencing. If they get re-sentenced though, they're not going to get mandatory life with no chance parole, but they'll still get very long sentences" said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. "It comes down to whether or not you think that you want to live in a society where children are locked away, never to see the light of day again, and it really depends upon whether you believe that there's an opportunity while imprisoned to be rehabilitated. If you believe in a very strict 'eye for an eye' type of justice, then you would be outraged by this decision, but if you believe that children can be rehabilitated, you welcome this decision."
Gough and Hernandez were both 14 when the crime was committed. Gough was stabbed 42 times in the restroom at Southwood Middle School, located in a Miami suburb, and Hernandez then calmly went to his eighth-grade class, according to trial testimony.
Hernandez, who medical experts say is a paranoid schizophrenic and suffers delusions, confessed to the crime and trial evidence showed he had a hit list of planned victims, including Gough and another 13-year-old boy he had tried earlier to lure into the restroom. Still, a jury in 2008 rejected Hernandez's insanity defense. The trial was moved to Orlando because of heavy media attention.
"I was working today, doing my thing, painting and I got the call," said Jorge Gough, Jaime's father. "We trust in the system and I believe that that whatever comes, they're going to make the right decision."
"It's not easy for us, but when I leave everything to God, it's true," said Maria Gough, Jaime's mother. "I respect the law and my work is looking for my peace and my family's peace."
Both parents said they were prepared to testify.
"I am prepared for that," said Jorge Gough. "From the beginning, I said whatever it takes. [I] want to be there for my son."
Juvenile offenders cannot get the death penalty under a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Hernandez attorney Richard Rosenbaum said he will ask at a new hearing for Hernandez, now 23, to receive a sentence that includes mental health treatment and far less prison time. Hernandez is currently serving time at the Columbia Correctional Institution Annex in Lake City.
"There's a definite chance that he could get a sentence that would give him the help he needs rather than simply punishment," Rosenbaum said.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her office was reviewing the decision "to understand its impact on this case and future cases." She noted that Hernandez's convictions were upheld, including one for first-degree murder for Gough's murder.
"This decision forces the Gough family to relive the brutal murder of their son Jaime while a new sentencing hearing will allow Hernandez's attorneys to present evidence in an effort to lessen his sentence," she said.
A new judge could still sentence Hernandez to the same life plus 30 years prison term he had been serving. The appeals court upheld Hernandez's murder and attempted murder convictions and the decision that he was mentally competent to stand trial.
"With discretion, the trial judge probably will give Hernandez a period of 25 years or so," said Jarvis.
Since the 2012 Supreme Court decision, appeals courts around Florida have been grappling with how to apply it. The Florida appeals judges noted Wednesday that the Hernandez appeal was still pending when the high court invalidated mandatory life sentences for juveniles, which made their decision almost automatic.
The ruling, however, notes that Florida has not changed its laws regarding life sentences for juveniles and courts have split on whether the Supreme Court decision should apply retroactively. Some Florida judges have suggested changing the law so that juveniles convicted of murder could become eligible for parole after 25 years or to allow for sentences of between 10 years and life.