What is Proper Justice for the “Unintentionally” Evil?

As I’ve argued here before, few people willingly choose to be immoral. An evil nature is often the product of evil forces, such as childhood abuse, abject poverty, social oppression, psychological illness, and so on.

It’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the world’s tyrants, murderers, and criminals had traumatic or otherwise troubled upbringings; even those evil individuals that endured no such experiences often display signs of some sort of mental illness (although poorer folks would have a harder time identifying these issues, let alone receiving the proper care).

It is for this reason that I am often conflicted about the extent to which we can assign blame for the evil actions of certain individuals. Certainly, I’m every bit as disgusted and shocked by the immorality of criminals as anyone else, and like the rest of society, I believe lawbreakers – especially the dangerous kind – should of course face justice and imprisonment.

But this doesn’t mean I view such people as unequivocally bad; that is to say, I don’t see them as evil for the sake of evil, but as evil due to forces beyond their control. Arguably, had these factors not been present in their lives (namely in their formative years as children), they would’ve turned out different. They wouldn’t be criminals. It’s hard to say of course, but it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw given what we know about the early lives of evil men.

A case in point is the recent news about Cristian Fernandez, which was the trigger of these thoughts. This thirteen year-old boy was recently charged as an adult for the brutal murder of his two year-old brother, as well as the sexual molestation of his five year-old brother. It should go without saying that no well-adjusted child would do something so heinous without explanation. Indeed, were you to read about this boy’s life while unaware of his crimes, you’d feel tremendous pity for him. As HuffPo reports:

Fernandez was born in Miami in 1999 to Biannela Susana, who was 12. The 25-year-old father received 10 years’ probation for sexually assaulting her.

Two years later, both mother and son went to foster care after authorities in South Florida found the toddler, filthy and naked, walking in the street at 4 a.m. near the motel where his grandmother did drugs.

In 2007, when Fernandez was 8, the Department of Children and Families investigated a report that he was sexually molested by an older cousin. Officials said other troubling incidents were reported, including claims that he he killed a kitten, simulated sex with classmates and masturbated at school.

In October 2010, Fernandez and his mother were living in Hialeah, a Miami suburb, with his mother’s new husband. Fernandez suffered an eye injury so bad that school officials sent him to the hospital where he was examined for retinal damage. Fernandez told officers that his stepfather had punched him. When officers went to the family’s apartment, they found the stepfather dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Soon, the family moved north to Jacksonville and Fernandez enrolled in middle school, getting straight A’s. They settled in a bland, beige public housing complex.

A few months later on March 14, 2011, deputies were called to the apartment: Fernandez’ baby brother, 2-year-old David, had died at a local hospital. The medical examiner determined that the toddler had a fractured skull, bruising to his left eye and a bleeding brain.

Susana, then 25, admitted to investigators that she had left Fernandez, David and her other children home alone. When she returned, she said she found David unconscious. She waited eight-and-a-half hours before taking him to the hospital and searched “unconsciousness” online and texted friends during that time.

Susana also revealed that two weeks before David’s death, Fernandez had broken the toddler’s leg while wrestling.

Susana was charged with aggravated manslaughter; the medical examiner said David might have survived if she had taken him to the hospital sooner for the head injury. She pleaded guilty in March and could get 30 years.

Fernandez, who had first been questioned as a witness, was soon charged with first-degree murder. The other felony charge was filed after his 5-year-old half-brother told a psychiatrist that Fernandez had sexually assaulted him.

The boy has talked openly to investigators and therapists about his life; the gritty details are captured in various court documents.

“Christian denied any plans or intent to kill his brother,” one doctor wrote. “He seemed rather defensive about discussing what triggered his anger. He talked about having a `flashback’ of the abuse by his stepfather as the motive for this offense … Christian was rather detached emotionally while discussing the incident.”

Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence. That’s why he is being detained pre-trial and why they charged him with two first-degree felonies.

I sometimes ask myself if I would’ve turned out any differently had I endured similar circusmtances in life. Obviously, not everyone who suffers through such trauma turns out to be a bad person; conversely, not everyone who is raised in a happy and healthy family end up a good one either. But it’s clear that one’s genes, environment, and social influences have some sort of bearing on your personality and health. It’s hard to imagine that young Fernandez would’ve ended up the exact same way had it not be for such horrific circumstances shaping his life. Indeed, that’s something that legal officials are grappling with too.

Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence. That’s why he is being detained pre-trial and why they charged him with two first-degree felonies.

Yet difficult questions remain for Judge Mallory Cooper: Should a child so young spend his life in prison? Does Fernandez understand his crimes, and can he comprehend the complex legal issues surrounding his case?

In August, Cooper ruled that police interrogations of Fernandez in the murder and sexual assault cases are not admissible, because the boy couldn’t knowledgeably waive his rights to remain silent and consult an attorney. Prosecutors are appealing.

The defense wants the charges dismissed, saying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning sentences of life without parole for juveniles makes it impossible for them to advise Fernandez since the Florida Legislature has not changed state law. Prosecutors say they never said they would seek a mandatory life sentence – they say the old Florida law that called for a 25-year-to-life sentence could apply.

Mitch Stone, a Jacksonville defense attorney who is familiar with the case, said Corey and her prosecutors are in a tough position.

“I know they’re good people and good lawyers,” he said. “But if a resolution short of trial doesn’t occur, this case is on a collision course to sending Cristian Fernandez to life in prison. That’s why this is one of those very difficult cases. It’s hard to understand what the appropriate measure is.”

Should child criminals with this sort of background be locked away from society for good? Or should they face a shorter sentence that includes rehabilitation? Would it be to late to “fix” people like Fernandez? Consider the similar case of death-row inmate Terrance Williams, another murderer who was horrifically victimized in his youth.

In fact, behind the image of Williams as a model student athlete was a childhood marred by horrific physical and sexual abuse that began from the time Williams was just 6 years old. Relentlessly beaten by his mother (herself a victim of abuse) and his alcoholic stepfather and gang-raped at a juvenile detention center when he was 16, by the time Williams killed Norwood he was regularly cutting himself, abusing drugs and alcohol, and had endured more than a decade of abuse.

Both the man’s victims were former abusers who no doubt pushed him further over the edge. This doesn’t justify murdering them in cold blood, but it should make us wonder if such cases merit special consideration. Do the traumatizing and mentally scarring experiences of people like Fernandez and Williams mitigate their resoonsibility? What would be an appropriate course of action that would be both fair and practical for the sake of public safety?

3 comments on “What is Proper Justice for the “Unintentionally” Evil?

  1. I ask these questions frequently. I ask them when I speak in Victim Impact and I ask them of myself. We are not the sum total of our history and we are not defined by the actions of others. However, without intervention children are turned into monster they learn to act on their thoughts and emotions without learning the consequences.

  2. No one under age 13 should be tried as an adult without first seeking alternate treatment. I think every young person deserves a second chance. If he kills again, then that’s another story.

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