Byline: Jim Schoettler
Cristian Fernandez's defense team scored a significant victory Tuesday when a judge tossed out police interrogations of the Jacksonville boy in his murder and sexual battery cases, having ruled that he didn't comprehend his Miranda rights or the implication of waiving them.
A frustrated Sheriff John Rutherford stood behind the detectives in the cases but said he is worried whether future interrogations of suspects 12 years old and younger will ever again be allowed at trial, at least in Duval County.
Fernandez, now 13, was 12 at the time of the interrogations.
After reading Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper's order, Rutherford ordered his chief of detectives to tell his troops to build cases against juveniles under 13 with an emphasis on forensic evidence and avoid relying on interrogations as the primary element.
Prosecutors will decide by Monday whether to appeal Cooper's ruling that granted the defense motions to suppress videotaped statements made during the interrogations. If an appeal is filed with the 1st District Court of Appeal, the sexual battery trial, now scheduled for Sept. 6, will likely be delayed. Next month's murder trial would also be delayed.
Cooper's ruling involved a March 2011 interrogation in the murder case, which involved the death of Fernandez's 2-year-old half brother, David Galarraga. It also covered a discussion Fernandez had with his mother, alone, during the first interrogation.
The second interrogation tossed occurred in June 2011 in the sexual molestation of a 5-year-old half brother.
Cooper's ruling indicates the detectives who interviewed Fernandez did not ensure that the boy voluntarily, knowingly or intelligently waived his Miranda rights - all requirements under the U.S. Constitution.
Cooper based her decision in part on her concerns over questions the detectives asked Fernandez and the testimony of defense psychological experts who said his age and a series of other factors left him unable to understand his rights or the consequences of waiving them. Attorneys also provided her with related case law during a four-day suppression hearing.
Fernandez's interrogation in the sexual battery case included a confession after nine denials, defense attorneys said. Details of the post-Miranda murder interrogation have not been made public.
Cooper's written order, released after a brief hearing Tuesday, said Fernandez's statements "must be suppressed" in the interrogation by homicide detective Mechelle Soehlig and the conversation the boy had with his mother.
"While the defendant may have appeared responsive and intelligent during the interrogation, the court cannot ignore the fact that the defendant was a 12-year-old child with no knowledge of the legal system," Cooper wrote. "Moreover, this court cannot ignore expert testimony that the defendant was unable to fully comprehend the Miranda warnings or appreciate the consequences of waiving his rights."
Cooper said that it was also clear that Soehlig believed all along that Fernandez understood her questions. The defense argued at one point during the suppression hearings that the detectives tried to trick Fernandez into talking with them.
In the interrogation by sex crimes detective Lisa Perez, Cooper said she was troubled when Fernandez asked Perez at the end of the interview whether his signed Miranda rights "were between you and me? …