Court Tosses Life Sentence in South Florida School Slaying

New sentencing hearing for Michael Hernandez in 2004 Southwood Middle School stabbing

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.

"Well, I'm optimistically hopeful that something good will happen for Michael, that he will be given a more appropriate sentence for a 14-year-old mentally ill boy and that out of this he'll be able to get the help that he needs," said his mother Kathy Hernandez.

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."

"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.

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 don't believe that he deserves another opportunity, but I just trust inthe law and that there will be justice, that they will make the right decision," said Jaime's father Jorge Gough.

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.

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.

Kathy Hernandez said she met with the Gough family for the first time at the end of January.

"It was an emotional meeting. I appreciated the opportunity to be able to sit down and speak with, I spoke with the whole family. Initially, it was just Mrs. Gough. I'd like to thank them for always being so gracious to us," she said.

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